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Happy birthday, Morris

Soldier's story brings local history to life

Soldier's story brings local history to life

April 09, 2004|by Kevin Moriarty

(Editor's note: This is in honor of Morris Frock, the first man from Washington County killed in World War I. Today is his 105th birthday.)

A few days after I moved into my house in Hagerstown's North End, shortly before Christmas, I noticed a shiny metallic object affixed to the street sign in my front yard. It read: Pvt. Maurice E. Frock, USMC, April 9, 1898-June 12, 1918.

Obviously this signified a casualty of World War I. My interest was piqued, but I didn't anticipate that piecing together the story of Maurice Frock and his family would provide me with an education about Hagerstown's history, and its changing industries through the 20th century.

Having grown up in a small town, smaller than Hagerstown, I knew from experience that if you wanted to know anything at all about anybody, you asked the guys at the American Legion. And, so, I located their Web page and discovered that Hagerstown's post is named Morris Frock. Too close for coincidence, and sure enough, the Post 42 historian confirmed that Maurice (Morris) Frock was the first county resident to be killed in the first World War. The small plaque in our front yard is an indication that Maurice lived in the neighborhood at the time he entered the service.

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Curious about Maurice and his family, I started some amateur research. The first puzzle was the spelling of his name. Maurice? Morris? As it turned out, there was some disagreement within the family about the spelling, with one or the other appearing on various documents.

The next step was obvious: the Washington County Free Library, where the librarian was cordial, although I'd never been to the library before and hadn't a clue where anything was.

On the front page of the Hagerstown Mail of June 26, 1918: "Morris Frock is Killed in Battle - Hagerstown Lad - He had been on Duty There for Over a Year and Was a Mennonite." His mother was Minnie Frock (who had been widowed just a few months earlier), and he was survived by several brothers and sisters (10 siblings in all survived Maurice). One brother was a barber at the National Bank Building. Another worked at the Roessner Bakery. Maurice began to emerge as a real person. Hagerstown began to emerge as a real city. I was hooked.

A Mennonite? What in the world was a Mennonite doing in the Marines during WWI? A visit to the library's Western Maryland Room helped clear that up. Military service records showed that he was killed by artillery barrages while running messages between his commander and the rest of the battalion, for which he was posthumously awarded the French Croix de Guerre.

Perhaps he was serving as a courier without weapons. Serving his country while observing his religious traditions.

Next, I searched and studied census enumeration forms, which are available online. I was able to trace Minnie, her husband Jacob, and their 11 children through decades up to 1930.

I noted their addresses as they moved about Hagerstown, and was fascinated by their occupations. I filled in gaps between the every-10-years census forms by consulting Hagerstown city directories at the library. It was like watching people grow and mature as they advanced from laborer to cutter to sewer to inspector at a mill, or from a rented house at 81 Carrolton Ave, to a house without mortgage at 1080 Virginia Ave. Maurice was teaching me my way around town!

I began picking up facts about Hagerstown's history. For instance, Maurice - at the time he entered the service - was working at the J.C. Roulette Company. A trip to the County Historical Society - where the director very kindly did not indicate whether she thought I was crazy - told me that the company had produced knitted goods. A little more research told me that J.C. Roulette was also the president of the Hagerstown Terriers, a Class D Blue Ridge League baseball team that played from 1915 to 1926. Did Maurice go to any games? I'm sure he must have. I hope he did.

Did you know that apparently young men and women started working at about age 12? That's what the census enumeration forms show in Hagerstown. It may have been a condition of social and economic class, but Maurice and his siblings were listed as laborers at a very tender age. Did you know that Hagerstown was a great center of carriage manufacturing, and later had three automobile manufacturing companies, earning it the sobriquet "Detroit of the East?" I only know this because Maurice's father worked at the Hess Carriage Company. Did you know that Hagerstown had cotton mills and glove factories and furnitureworks?

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