49 Days of Gratitude: Merci Train’s legacy of thanks will hit home during February, March
Published 12:01 am Sunday, January 6, 2019
By Mark Wineka
SPENCER — To know about the “49 Days of Gratitude” coming to Rowan County in February and March, you first need a quick history lesson about the Merci Train — a gift from France to the United States 70 years ago.
In February 1949, the people of France donated 49 railcars to the United States as a thank you for the 1947 American Friendship Train of relief goods that had been sent to Europe after World War II.
One railcar went to each state at the time, and a 49th boxcar was to be shared between Washington, D.C., and the then-territory of Hawaii.
Together, the cars were called the Gratitude Train, or Merci Train.
Each railcar, based on the 40 and 8 design dating back to World War I, was filled with gifts of French goods and handmade items — things such as embroidered handkerchiefs, dolls, toys, plates, even wedding dresses.
North Carolina’s Merci boxcar was delivered to Raleigh in 1949, and it eventually made its way to the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer, where it usually is on display in the Roundhouse.
Which leads to this idea of the 49 Days of Gratitude.
Sparked by a middle schooler’s artwork from a couple of years back, the initiative is being led locally by volunteers Sherry Mason Brown and Kimberly Lentz and the Transportation Museum.
Numerous programs, exhibits and activities with the themes of World War II, French culture and — above all else, gratitude — are planned.
But the heart of this “Celebration of Thanks” will be the placement of 49 donation boxes throughout Rowan County for local charities — one to represent each of the original 49 railcars of the Merci Train.
“Everybody is just so drawn to this,” Brown said.
The big donation boxes, measuring 24 inches wide and 19 inches deep and decorated with the Merci boxcar, won’t be for accepting money.
Rather, they are meant to attract specific material needs of the nonprofit groups. The boxes will be placed at the sponsoring local businesses and organizations.
The cost of sponsoring a box is $100. Sponsors will be recognized at opening and closing ceremonies for the 49 Days of Gratitude, they will be listed on the website, and they will choose which charities to support.
The donation boxes will be distributed Feb. 9 during opening ceremonies, which will include a parade in Spencer, a program emceed by WBTV’s David Whisenant, a keynote address by Beth Troutman and the opening of the Transportation Museum’s Merci Train exhibit.
Sponsors will receive a list of needs from the organizations they choose, and donations will be collected for 49 days.
A closing ceremony are March 30. A video highlighting the sponsors with their collections will be made and shown at then.
Brown and Lentz and Mark Brown of the Transportation Museum said one of the things they are most excited about is that this one-time initiative will involve 49 businesses or organizations and 49 charities on top of that.
“This thing will spread across the county in a massive way,” Sherry Mason Brown said.
Beyond the donation boxes, the 49 Days of Gratitude also will involve all of the county’s middle-schoolers — 5,600 kids — in The Butterfly Project, which ties in the history of the Holocaust as it relates to World War II.
Beth Nance, director of the N.C. Museum of Dolls, Toys & Miniatures, is heading that effort, which carries a total cost of $12,000.
The price of sponsoring one of the public schools is $1,000 to $1,500, depending on student enrollment, but donations of any amount are welcome.
Each middle school student will paint a $2 ceramic butterfly, which will eventually be included in several permanent art installations throughout the county. First, all the butterflies will be on display at the March 30 closing ceremony at North Rowan High School.
The butterflies honor the lives of the 1.5 million Jewish and non-Jewish children who died in the Holocaust, and the memorial plaques on the installations will share messages of remembrance and hope.
Each of the $2 kits comes with a biography card of a child who died in the Holocaust. The Butterfly Project, which is a global education and arts program, also includes a middle school lesson plan.
There will be public and middle school screenings of “The Butterfly Documentary Film.” Tammy Grinshpon, daughter of Terenzin Concentration Camp survivor Ela Weissberger, will share her mother’s story when the film is shown.
By the time the 49 Days of Gratitude ends, the N.C. Transportation Museum, Fresh Artists, Center for Faith & the Arts, Waterworks, Rowan Museum, the N.C. Museum of Dolls, Toys & Miniatures, Rowan’s Public libraries, the Phoenix Readers, Rowan-Salisbury Schools, 40 and 8 and others will have been involved.
Both Lentz and Sherry Mason Brown first learned of the Merci railcar through their volunteer work with the Fresh Artists program at North Rowan Middle School.
Under the Fresh Artists program, which started in Philadelphia, student art becomes corporate art, and the money is used to buy art supplies for underfunded schools. That leads to more student art and more giving back.
North Rowan Middle School began participating two years ago as a pilot program.
One of the exercises in Fresh Artists calls on students to create a “Silly City” based on their artwork from a particular place. The North Rowan Middle students focused on the Transportation Museum.
One of the students, then eighth-grader Anna Everhart, painted the Merci railcar.
Anna is now a sophomore at North Rowan High. She remembers finishing the railcar wasn’t an easy task, given she had to paint many of the elaborate shields on the boxcar representing some of the 40 French provinces.
But to make a long story short, Brown and Lentz learned the history of the Merci car, realized the 70th anniversary was approaching and thought it would be nice to commemorate the French gift.
“But when we thought about the theme of gratitude, we thought the place to start is at home,” Lentz said. “… Then it grew to 49 days.”
Brown and Lentz joke that they have become sort of the air traffic controllers for the 49 days.
There will be no cost for entering the Gratitude Parade on Feb. 9. Businesses, schools, churches, nonprofit groups, youth leagues, government officers, military organizations and others are all being invited to participate.
There will be military bands, floats, trucks and cars involved. The organizers don’t know what to expect — it could be “a petite parade,” Lentz said, laughing. For the opening ceremonies, organizers also are hopeful that a representative of the French government will attend.
North Rowan High students Trey Wilhoit and Tsion Delaney are helping with parade arrangements. The deadline for entries is Jan. 31. Call Lentz at 704-798-6830 for information.
A website — 49DaysOfGratitude.com — will be up and running soon.
If you are interested in sponsoring a gratitude box, call 704-636-2889, Ext. 228, or contact Sherry Mason Brown at email@example.com.
For those wishing to sponsor a school for The Butterfly Project or make a donation to that effort, contact Beth Nance at the N.C. Museum of Dolls, Toys & Miniatures, 108 Fourth St., Spencer, NC 28159.
Nance’s phone number is 704-762-9359. Checks can be made payable to NCMDTM and noted as a restricted gift for the Rowan County Butterfly Project.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.