The French Gratitude Train, another term for it, was one of 49 boxcars given to the people of the United States in 1949 in gratitude for their abundant gifts of food and clothing for the destitute people of France and Italy. The boxcars were designated one per state, with the 49th shared by the District of Columbia and Hawaii.
Gov. Earl Warren selected Fresno as California’s recipient for one of these Merci boxcars, perhaps because of the figs, raisins, and other dried fruits sent from the Central Valley.
In return, the French boxcars were filled with French souvenirs, dolls, statues, clothes, hand crafts and other miscellaneous items. Fresno took possession of the boxcar in 1952 and placed it at Roeding Park, where it remained until 2004. Then the American Legion Post 509 became the custodian, pledging as per requirements to restore, provide a protective cover, maintain and place it in a place for public access.
The custodians did what they could, donating countless hours and money to honor the responsibility of preserving and restoring the boxcar. With the shrinking membership of the Legionnaires’ group in Fresno, they simply couldn’t afford to secure and pay for a covering to protect the historic treasure from the relentless weather conditions common in our Valley. Wishing to preserve this gift to the American people, the Post members voted to give the boxcar to the Palm Springs Air Museum.
However, the Merci Train Boxcar was designated a Heritage Property by the Historic Preservation Commission in 2016 due to its association with WWII military history in Fresno and in California, and because it is an excellent example of a French World War I Boxcar property type. Relocating the boxcar must be approved by the city Historic Preservation Commission.
Several of us involved in historic preservation heard about this application to move the boxcar, and launched a quick community interest show of support to keep this treasure in the Valley. Spearheaded by board members of Heritage Fresno, we solicited letters of support from Fresno County Historic Records and Landmarks Commission; Alliance Francaise of Fresno; the Clovis Veterans Memorial District, and other veterans’ groups.
We gathered signed petitions from veterans and people in the community intent on keeping this historic military treasure in Fresno County. On April 22 we brought forth our case before Fresno Historic Preservation Commission and the general public.
After the presentation, of all the representatives —including one from Post 509 — the vote was unanimous. The commission declined the application to relocate the Merci Boxcar to the Palm Springs Air Museum.
But the work doesn’t stop there. Post 509 had legitimate concerns for wanting to send the boxcar out of the Valley. It is our job now to follow through on the terms of the custodianship, to raise the funds and secure an appropriate shelter for the boxcar.
Ideally, we would desire a place of honor in a highly visible place for the public to glean the knowledge of what this symbol represents and allow them to offer their appreciation to our veterans who fought to protect our freedoms.
At the close of the meeting, Schmidt turned to me and said, “Did we win?”
“Yes, indeed, Vern, we won,” I said.
We won the opportunity to educate the public on the sacrifices of our World War II veterans. We won the opportunity to put our hearts, time and dollars toward preserving this symbol of our freedom, and for our veterans, we can never do enough.
Please join us in this worthy endeavor.
Janice Stevens is co-chair of Heritage Fresno and is a Fresno resident.