Puyallup: Opinion

Anderson: Detailing the life of Puyallup’s American Red Cross worker a fascinating process

The Puyallup Historical Society has been researching the early adult life of an American Red Cross worker Bess Cook, who braved the aftermath of World War I Europe to minister to citizens and American occupation forces personnel.
The Puyallup Historical Society has been researching the early adult life of an American Red Cross worker Bess Cook, who braved the aftermath of World War I Europe to minister to citizens and American occupation forces personnel. Courtesy

Over the last several weeks, the Puyallup Historical Society has been pleasantly occupied researching the early adult life of an American Red Cross worker who braved the aftermath of World War I Europe to minister to citizens and American occupation forces personnel.

It all began with a box of papers and photos loaned to the society. The contents included a tantalizing pile of mailed letters, in their original envelopes, postcards, and an album containing photos of soldiers with the Eiffel Tower in the background. The letters and cards were sent from Paris and Constantinople, Turkey, many on Red Cross letterhead, dated between 1918 and 1921.

Our intrepid letter writer turned out to be Elizabeth (Bess) Cook, the daughter of Agnes Cook, who, having lost her first husband, married Robert Montgomery, noted Puyallup newspaper publisher. Bess had graduated Puyallup High School and not long after, signed up with the American Red Cross, and was sent to Paris at the end of World War I to help with housing and feeding people. She also visited with U.S. occupation forces scattered throughout war-torn Germany, in places like Koblenz.

With the troops, she was photographed with captured military equipment, such as an early tank.

In a 1920 letter, Cook mentioned meeting others from Puyallup, to include Tot Biglow, who would become the long-time Puyallup city treasurer, but who apparently then was also in Paris with the Red Cross. They both complained of not receiving packages from home. Cook also mentioned running into Dick Elvins in 1919, who she reported to be headed to serve the Polish Army as a doctor.

Cook was later transferred to Constantinople, Turkey, where she assisted the remnants of the White Russian forces fleeing through Turkey at the end of the Russian Civil War.

In one of the last letters in the trove, she wrote her mother that she was engaged to be married. There, the original documentation ends. There is only so much one can do with Ancestry.com. We were able to track Cook in the 1920 census (double reported in Puyallup and in Paris) and then the trail went cold. Without a name for her intended, it was not possible to go further.

But Lori Price, former Puyallup historian, had given us the key to the lock. In a March 16, 2000, Museum Pieces article about Agnes Montgomery, a young widow who had moved to Sumner from Minnesota with her daughter, Price reported on Agnes’ offspring, both the two Montgomery children and (Mrs.) Elizabeth Cook Dufor, by then deceased. From there it was relatively easy to backtrack and fill in the blanks.

Henri Dufour was born in Belgium, but moved to the San Francisco Bay Area as a child. He served in the war first with British then American forces, and wound up in the same Red Cross outfit as Cook in Constantinople. The couple married in 1922, and moved back to Pierce County, but the marriage didn’t last. By the 1930 census, Miss Dufour was living on N. Gove St. in Tacoma and teaching school, while Mr. Dufour was a living in a boarding house in Tacoma and working as an auditor for a shipping company. He remarried and left the area, and, in any case, we aren’t really interested in him.

Bess died in March 1983 and is buried in the Sumner cemetery.

The Puyallup Historical Society is always interested in collections of letters, as they give us an insight into what is really going on in someone’s life, as opposed to external observation.

Andy Anderson is the historian for the Puyallup Historical Society at Meeker Mansion. You can reach him at historyandy@comcast.net, or through the Meeker Mansion at 253-848-1770.

  Comments