NEWBERRY — Virginia author Rosemary Thornton is researching information for a new book that examines the women who worked in Penniman, Va., during World War I. One of these women is Sarah “Sadie” Elizabeth Bowers, a Newberry native.
Bowers was born in 1887 to Andrew Bowers A.M., D.D. and Mary Lou Brown Bowers. Her father graduated from Newberry College in 1880 and, according to the 1912 Newbarrian, was a professor of ancient language and literature. When WWI was well underway in Europe, a town in Virginia named Penniman was established to host a facility that would stuff shells with trinitrotoluene (TNT).
“Sadie had a four-year degree from Newberry College. Despite this, she traveled to Penniman and took up one of the most dangerous jobs — loading boosters. There were many casualties in that line of work,” said Thornton, author of The House That Sears Built.
During her research into Penniman, Thornton discovered that many of the women would die from Spanish influence due to their poor immune systems. Thornton said their poor immune systems were due to TNT poisoning, which also gave them yellow coloration and made them sterile.
Bowers was one of the lucky ones and was able to leave the facility with her health and life.
Bowers left for Penniman in 1918, a year after the United States entered the war, and began working on the shell-loading lines. She left after the armistice was reached later that same year.
After returning to Newberry from Penniman, Bowers never married and continued to live with her parents until her father died in 1930. Her mother died in 1949, after which she lived alone until her death in 1976 at the age of 88. She was interned in Rosemont Cemetery.
Before her death, Bowers worked for the Newberry Post Office and eventually became the postmistress.
Of all the women who worked at Penniman, Bowers caught the attention of Thornton when she came across a letter that Bowers wrote home. That letter was published in The Newberry Observer on Oct. 8, 1918, and would later be syndicated in other papers such as The Herald and News.
In her letter Bowers used the word “patriotic” multiple times, and Thornton said that during that time, using the word patriotic meant the work that was being done was very difficult. After she read this letter, Thornton wanted to share Bowers with the world.
“History is a story of people’s lives, and I really want to honor her life and memory,” said Thornton.
Thornton’s goal is to devote an entire chapter of Penniman: Virginia’s Own Ghost City to Bowers, but she still needs more information to properly write a chapter.
“After I read Sadie’s wonderful letter, it dawned on me that perhaps this woman had written more than just a single letter. Perhaps there were articles, personal narratives, unpublished manuscripts or subsequent interviews,” Thornton said.
If you have any information on Sadie Bowers or are a relative of Bowers, contact Rosemary Thornton at firstname.lastname@example.org.