The North Platte Canteen: World War II History I Never Knew

Several people have asked me, “Why are you traveling to Nebraska? You live in Colorado.” In some ways, I do understand the question. There is little doubt that Colorado is beautiful. It’s the Rocky Mountain state with some of the most awe-inspiring views in the world.

However, I grew up in a small town in the Pacific Northwest where cows outnumbered people and that’s a lot like Nebraska. I hold a special place in my heart for small towns and Nebraska has a lot. In fact, it is made up of small towns.

The North Platte Canteen World War II History I Never Knew. HeidiTown (3)
The village of historic buildings at the Lincoln County Historical Museum.

With a lot of water flowing through this state, it’s much, much greener than I imagined. Plus, there is nothing quite as peaceful or lovely as the sun rising over a Nebraska prairie. Perhaps there are no craggy peaks or wild waterfalls, but I’ve discovered a place with a lot of heart and deeply American stories to tell. 

One of those stories is told at the Lincoln County Historical Society, and the six-year event plays a big role in North Platte then and now. It’s the story of the North Platte Canteen, something I had never known about.

The North Platte Canteen World War II History I Never Knew. HeidiTown (1)

In March, I got a special behind the scenes look at the museum’s exhibit about the North Platte Canteen. There is also an online exhibit about it here.

During World War II, six million troops came through North Platte on the train and they all were welcomed by North Platte Canteen, a volunteer effort to feed these men home-cooked food while they were stopped in town. It’s a beautiful story of patriotism, fortitude and volunteerism. 

The North Platte Canteen World War II History I Never Knew. HeidiTown (2)
Be sure to learn about the Popcorn Girls when you go to North Platte.

Volunteers, mostly women from 125 different communities, worked tirelessly from December 1941 until April 1946. It’s hard to imagine these women, who were rationing food in their homes, could still find ways to feed these men. And it didn’t matter where the men were from or the color of their skin, everyone got a home-cooked meal. They even baked birthday cakes. The extent of this work is mind-blowing.

In one month they went through 30,679 eggs. I told you, mind-blowing.

The North Platte Canteen World War II History I Never Knew. HeidiTown (8)

Canteens sprung up in other train towns, but the venture in North Platte was the biggest in the country. Old men still talk about how much the North Platte Canteen meant to them when they came through town.

By the way, the men were fed while they were on the trains because they were not allowed to get off. What a feat by these volunteers! 

The North Platte Canteen World War II History I Never Knew. HeidiTown (7)

And guess what? Downtown North Platte’s historic downtown has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the “Canteen District.” 

This is one of the greatest World War II stories that I never knew.

Learn more at the Lincoln County Historical Society in North Platte which is open May 1 through September 30. There’s a lot to see here, including a village of historic buildings.

The North Platte Canteen World War II History I Never Knew. HeidiTown (10)

The North Platte Canteen World War II History I Never Knew. HeidiTown (5)

The North Platte Canteen World War II History I Never Knew. HeidiTown (4)

Read about crane watching in North Platte.

Read about prairie chicken watching in North Platte.

Thank you to Visit North Platte for hosting this trip.

Thank you to Jim Griffin, curator of the museum, for our tour.

2 Comments


  1. Heidi. Lovely article.

    A few years ago I read this marvelous book by Bob Greene about North Platte.

    https://www.amazon.com/Once-Upon-Town-Miracle-Canteen/dp/006008197X

    “In search of “the best America there ever was,” bestselling author and award-winning journalist Bob Greene finds it in a small Nebraska town few people pass through today—a town where Greene discovers the echoes of the most touching love story imaginable: a love story between a country and its sons.

    During World War II, American soldiers from every city and walk of life rolled through North Platte, Nebraska, on troop trains en route to their ultimate destinations in Europe and the Pacific. The tiny town, wanting to offer the servicemen warmth and support, transformed its modest railroad depot into the North Platte Canteen.

    Every day of the year, every day of the war, the Canteen—staffed and funded entirely by local volunteers—was open from five a.m. until the last troop train of the day pulled away after midnight. Astonishingly, this remote plains community of only 12,000 people provided welcoming words, friendship, and baskets of food and treats to more than six million GIs by the time the war ended.

    In this poignant and heartwarming eyewitness history, based on interviews with North Platte residents and the soldiers who once passed through, Bob Greene tells a classic, lost-in-the-mists-of-time American story of a grateful country honoring its brave and dedicated sons.”

    Reply

  2. I heard about these wonderful people in some movie I have watched. Wish I could remember which movie. Lovely article!

    Reply

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