Today, nature lovers treasure the common milkweed because it offers crucial habitat to the monarch butterfly. But back in 1944, military planners treasured the plant as a raw material in the war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Milkweed seeds have white, wispy hairs referred to as "floss." When the seed pod cracks open, the seeds are distributed by the winds, an ingenious evolutionary adaptation employed by the dandelion, cottonwood tree and many other species.
In an era before the pervasive use of synthetic fibers, the value of milkweed floss lay in its buoyancy. The armed forces used it in the manufacture of life preservers needed for its airmen and sailors. Life preservers were critical to Allied success, since so much of the war was fought on or over the seas.
Milkweed, though, was not the first choice for life preserver stuffing. During World War II, the Japanese gained control of the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia), cutting off the main U.S. supply of floss, which came from the tropical kapok tree. Like the common milkweed, kapok seeds are carried aloft by delicate strands of cotton-like fiber.
Luckily, milkweed proved an acceptable substitute. One problem, though, was that it would take upward of three years to produce a commercial crop. Thus the government had no choice but to make the unusual call for the collection of seed pods wherever the plant grew wild.
W.I. DeWees, an assistant professor of agriculture from Illinois State Normal University, was state superintendent for the floss collection program. With labor - both in the city and countryside - at a premium, schoolchildren were enlisted in the cause. This was a time before the complete mechanization of the farm and school consolidation, so there were many more children and many more schools in the Illinois countryside than today.
Therefore, it was schoolchildren who spent the untold hours walking fencerows, roadsides and railroad right of ways looking for milkweed, which before the war was considered little more than a weed.
Onion sacks were distributed to carry the collected pods, and children received 15 cents per bag, with an additional 5 cents if the pods were dried. Two bags of pods contained floss for one life jacket. The U.S. military called for the collection of 2 million pounds of floss nationally, enough to fill 1.2 million life jackets.
Harvesting the floss was simply a matter of picking the pods before they cracked open and released their seeds. Consequently, the pods doubled as handy storage units before the naturally buoyant fiber could be processed into lifejacket stuffing.
Let it be said that McLean County schoolchildren did their part for the war effort. Six Mile School, in the northeast corner of Normal Township, collected a county high 110 sacks of milkweed pods. Led by teacher Louise Behrend, the Six Mile students - all 14 of them - hunted for milkweed around Lake Bloomington and along the Chicago and Alton Railroad tracks.
Funk-Stubblefield School, in Mount Hope Township north of McLean, gathered 85 sacks, enough for second place. Stout's Grove, a school west of Danvers, came in third with 48 sacks. Taught by Marie Bosler, the school had just eight students, "all of whom are small," noted The Pantagraph.
All told, McLean County schools collected 1,900 sacks. Township road commissioners trucked the bags to Towanda, where they were stored in two steel corn bins. From there the pods were shipped by rail to Petoskey, Mich., home of a milkweed floss processing plant.
World War II, unlike the current war, required continual sacrifices, both large and small, of the general public. There were, for example, scrap drives, rations cards, blackouts, war bonds and higher taxes. And there were even schoolchildren walking fence rows, on the lookout for milkweed.