by Susan Berberet, Assistant Curator
In February 1949, a French freighter arrived in New York carrying 49 boxcars filled with gifts of thanks from the French people to the United States. The act was in response to the ‘Friendship Train’ that in 1947 toured the US and collected $40 million worth of food and clothing to aid France at the end of WWII. Every continental US state received a boxcar from the ‘Merci Train’ or ‘Gratitude Train’; Oklahoma’s car was brought to the front of the State Capitol the morning of February 18, 1949. In a grand ceremony, Governor Roy J. Turner accepted the gifts from the Consul General of France, Hon. Lionel Vasse. Within the next few days, the items were unloaded and on display in the auditorium at the old Wiley Post building of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Refurbished in 1989, Oklahoma’s Merci Train boxcar sits in front of the J.D. McCarty Center in Norman, Oklahoma. The gifts were given to the Oklahoma Historical Society and have been stored in the Oklahoma Museum of History’s collections. The Merci Train collection comprises a unique mixture of personal belongings, clothing, homemade trinkets, dolls, souvenirs and art. Some of the most emotional items are the handmade ornaments and box full of hair ribbons with notes attached that read “Souvenir reconnaissant de l’Orphelinat de Trevidy À Morlaix”, which translated means “Gifts of thanks from the orphans of Trevidy at Morlaix.” These ribbons were probably orphan girls’ dress sashes and hair bows that they sent to say ‘thank you’.
Another interesting artifact is a brass jar that was made from an old shell casing. The outside had been decorated with etched and punched designs, and on the lid was engraved ‘Givenchy 1918′. This particular container was a souvenir that had been made from the shells of the First World War and then given in gratitude after the Second.
Approximately 300 artifacts make up the Merci Train collection. They serve as a reminder of the many sacrifices and losses experienced by people of France and the United States during WWII. However, these gifts and letters also express the happiness and the hope of a war-torn country after the World Wars.