REGIONAL NEWS: Merci Train’s legacy of thanks will hit home

Published 9:43 am Friday, January 25, 2019

By Mark Wineka, The Salisbury Post

To know about the “49 Days of Gratitude” coming to Rowan County in February and March, one first needs a 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 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 to World War I, was filled with gifts of French goods and handmade items — things such as embroidered handkerchiefs, dolls, toys, plates, wedding dresses.

North Carolina’s Merci boxcar was delivered to Raleigh in 1949, and eventually made its way to the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer.

Which leads to this 49 Days of Gratitude.

Sparked by a middle schooler’s artwork from a couple of years back, the initiative is 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 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 is March 30. A video highlighting the sponsors with their collections will be made and shown 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.

The 49 Days of Gratitude 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 cost of $12,000.

The price of sponsoring one of the schools is $1,000 to $1,500, depending on student enrollment, but donations of any amount are welcome.

Each student will paint a $2 ceramic butterfly, which will eventually be included in several permanent art installations throughout the county.

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 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 learned of the Merci railcar through their volunteer work with the Fresh Artists program at North Rowan Middle.

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 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 students focused on the Transportation Museum.

One of the students, then eighth-grader Anna Everhart, painted the Merci railcar.

Anna is now a North Rowan High sophomore. 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.

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 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. For opening ceremonies, organizers are hopeful a French government representative will attend.

North Rowan High students Trey Wilhoit and Tsion Delaney are helping with parade arrangements. The deadline for entries is Thursday. Call Lentz at 704-798-6830. The website 49DaysOfGratitude. com is available.

Anyone interested in sponsoring a gratitude box can call 704-636-2889, Ext. 228, or email

Those wishing to sponsor a school for The Butterfly Project or make a donation to that can 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 to NCMDTM and noted as a restricted gift for the Rowan County Butterfly Project.

Mark Wineka is a Salisbury Post reporter. Email or 704-797-4263.

Events connected with the 49 Days of Gratitude:

• Feb. 9 — The Gratitude Parade in Spencer, followed by the grand opening with Beth Troutman, an Emmy Award-winning keynote speaker. The N.C. Transportation Museum’s Gratitude Train Exhibit will open for a 49-day run. The museum also will have its French-themed “Wine & Dine on the Rails.”

• Feb. 9-March 30 — The North Rowan Fresh Artists Silly City Exhibition will be on display at the Waterworks Visual Arts Center, 123 E. Liberty St., Salisbury.

• Feb. 13-March 30 — Rowan-Salisbury Schools student exhibitions tied to the 49 Days of Gratitude, Waterworks.

• Feb. 15 — Art Crawl. the Salisbury trolley will have stops at Waterworks, Center for Faith & the Arts and more.

• Feb. 16 — Night at the Museum with GI Joe, held at both Rowan Museum and N.C. Museum of Dolls, Toys & Miniatures.

• Feb. 20 — African-American involvement in World War II, Hood Theological Seminary.

• Feb. 23 — Introductory swing dancing at Rowan Public Library; showing of World War II movie “Anchors Aweigh” at the East Branch of Rowan Public Library; showing of World War II movie “Casablanca” at South Rowan Regional Library in China Grove/Landis.

• Feb. 25 — Gratitude Journaling at Rowan Public Library.

• Feb. 27-March 3 — Tuskegee Airmen Exhibit “Rise Above” at the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer.

• March 9 — Salute to Women in Service at the Hefner VA Medical Center. Also, the “Meet Me in Paris” gala — the annual fundraiser for the Center for Faith & the Arts at Lee Street theatre.

• March 15 — “The Great War” — Phoenix Readers and St. John’s Lutheran Church.

• March 16 — American Girl “Molly on the Home Front” at N.C. Museum of Dolls, Toys & Miniatures.

• March 22 — Merci Weekend, “All Things French.” (Among other touches, downtown Salisbury stores will be encouraged to have French themes.)

• March 24 — Cinema CFA (Center for Faith & the Arts) presents “Sarah’s Key,” an American film about the rounding up of Jews during World War II.

• March 30 — Closing ceremony, including Piedmont Prime Time Community Band at North Rowan High School. Drama students will be recounting stories of war veterans.