Richmond’s Commercial Club wanted the city to be involved in the war effort beyond buying war bonds and planting gardens. A unique opportunity presented itself in May of 1918.
Automobiles were still a novelty at the start of the Great War, but it didn’t take long for the new technology to show its wartime value. Only a few weeks after the opening shots in the summer of 1914, Paris was saved by the fleet of taxis that rushed French troops out to the front to help stop the advancing German army. All the armies still used thousands of horses and other animals, but cars that didn’t need to be fed and watered and weren’t startled by explosions were an appealing option. The armies needed fewer veterinarians, but many more mechanics. Richmond had at least three automobile factories and many more garages, so it was qualified to help.
A young teacher named Kenneth V. Carman had been employed at the Richmond schools as head of vocational education, but when the war started he left to take a position with the Vocational Training Section of the War Department. The need for trained mechanics had been discussed in Washington, and Mr. Carman suggested Richmond as a desirable location for such a school. Several inspections and lots of red tape later, Richmond was officially selected as the host of one of the Army’s newest schools.
The Commercial Club, which was an early version of the Chamber of Commerce, was in charge of the arrangements for the creation of the school. It created a Training Detachment committee comprised of William H. Dill, president of the Commercial Club, George Seidel, owner of the Pilot Automobile Company, and J. T. Giles, Superintendent of Richmond Schools. These men were responsible for housing, feeding and instruction of the troops. The Army provided a captain, two lieutenants, a medical officer and a mess sergeant for military drill and discipline.
The specific location of the school was the historic mill in Spring Grove which had been built in the 1860s. The second and third floors were used for sleeping quarters and offices, and the first floor was fitted out as the kitchen and mess hall. The workshops were set up in the basement. The drill grounds were located a short distance north of the barracks.
The first group of 103 soldiers arrived in Richmond on July 1, 1918 and reported to the Training Detachment. After a week of military orientation, they began their instruction. The committee had been able to secure several engines, but they also asked (through the newspaper) for other equipment loans. They also made an announcement that anyone owning a Ford or Dodge that their cars would be repaired for free at the detachment, presumably because those were the makes that the Army owned.
The first class completed training at the end of August, and the next class of 103 reported a couple days later on September 2. By this time, the Commercial Club had been given authorization to expand the school to accommodate 600 soldiers at a time. Construction of a large barracks attached to the old mill began in September to be ready for the enlarged school to start in November. The war ended before the plans could be completed.
The old mill building was nearly unoccupied for the next several years, but even into the 1950s the sign reading “The Richmond Commercial Club Training Detachment” could still plainly be seen. The mill was finally torn down in 1967.
— Sue King