Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, April 22, 2021

American Industrialist & Philanthropist Joseph G. Butler, Jr., Visits France in 1916

By Kimball Worcester

The American Industrial Commission to France (1916) was organized and dispatched on its mission by the American Manufacturers’ Export Association in response to a suggestion made November 21, 1915, by President E. M. Herr of the Association at a reception-luncheon given to the French Trade Commission, headed by M. Maurice Damour, deputy of The Landes… Official assurances, conveyed subsequently through Ambassador Jusserand, established French acquiescence beyond doubt, and indicated the unusual character of the opportunity offered an American organization to study French industrial conditions. 
(Chapter I, “The Inception of the Commission,” Report to the American Manufacturers Export Association by the American Industrial Commission to France, September–October 1916)

Thus begins the dense and informative report of the 13-member mission on which the Ohio industrialist Joseph G. Butler, Jr. (1840-1927), traveled to France in autumn 1916 as “the representative of the steel and iron industry.” Butler pioneered steel making in Youngstown, Ohio, in the late 19th century. His companies included the Ohio Steel Company, subsequently the Ohio Works of Carnegie Steel, later U. S. Steel, in addition to Youngstown Sheet and Tube and the Youngstown and Suburban Railway Company. 

The summary of the commission’s report opens with “America must become an important factor in European reconstruction after the war, and whatever tends to throw light on the specific needs of one nation cannot fail to call attention to the similar needs of all.” The report is, predictably, businesslike and solid, while Butler’s reminiscence is personal and chatty as well as astute and heartfelt. This is a chapter of reminiscence from 1925, published two years before his death in Recollections of Men and Events, and he also wrote a more extensive account of his 1916 journey in  A Journey Through France in War Time  (Cleveland: The Penton Press, 1917).

The commission set sail on 3 August 1916 on the French ship Lafayette, an appropriate vessel indeed. Butler comments on the ship: "We found a gun mounted on the prow of our vessel, the Lafayette, and were assured that it was meant for business if the occasion arose, the Captain explaining that his instructions were to fire on the German submarine, if any such vessel threatened his ship." They docked in Bordeaux on 3 September, with Butler observing: 

The first thing that struck me when we landed at Bordeaux was the large number of able-bodied men employed about the docks. It seemed strange when man-power was at such a premium. We were told that these were Spaniards. At this port I saw also a great deal of steel that had been made in Youngstown [namely, his companies’ steel]. Butler recounts as well of Bordeaux: I had secured a small French flag at Bordeaux and carried it with me constantly on the journey through France, waving it whenever the opportunity occurred, in spite of the warning given us by our chairman that we were to observe strict neutrality. This flag was received with great enthusiasm. 

Butler accurately comments on the commission’s official neutrality: "Our chairman was thoroughly convinced that we should observe the strictest neutrality, although we were to be the guests of the French Government and to visit a stricken country with which most of us felt the greatest sympathy." Good points, there. Butler’s Francophilia shows throughout the memoir without degrading into the “filthy Hun” Germanophobia. 

The Schneider Works at Le Creusot

The commission visits textile factories, munitions manufacturing, shelled cathedrals and towns, and Le Creusot, where “the greatest of all French steel and munitions plants is located.” They were kept away from the area where the high-explosive shells were loaded, as “it was thought the danger was too great.” He notes, interestingly, that this plant is “the oldest business concern in France, having been chartered as a coal mining proposition in 1253.” They traveled largely by automobile, near the First Marne battle lines, to Rheims, Baccarat, Limoges, Belfort, and Besançon (the “gateway to the Front”), among other locales. They are feted by the French and speeches are made on both sides, although Butler himself does not speak French (one wonders how many on this American commission actually did). Butler can’t help name dropping a bit. He meets Lloyd George at the Hotel Crillon in Paris and “greeted the English Premier in Welsh, his native tongue, which secured for me a few minutes conversation with him…[he said that] ‘the world is big enough for us all’ [and that] the British were ‘fighting the battle of civilization.’”

Further adventures bring Butler and the commission ultimately to Le Havre on 18 October, whence they cross the Channel and make their way to Liverpool, embarking on the Philadelphia for the journey back across the Atlantic, arriving “without incident.” Later, Butler philosophizes toward the end of his 1925 essay: 

What does civilization mean if it fails to include justice and consideration for others What do knowledge and skill and industry profit, if they are to be used to destroy what they have already created? And what do the long ages of man’s struggle upward to the light avail if they lead to scenes such as have been described [above]? Since that time the German dream of dominance has been shattered and the human race seems safe from another such catastrophe as the World War, but there does not appear to be much evidence that Europe has learned from this experience the lesson it should teach which is that if human progress is to be real, both the head and the heart must have a share in solving the problems of mankind.

Winslow Homer's Crack the Whip at the
Butler Institute of American Art

Joseph G. Butler, Jr., made good on this belief in human progress in 1919, when he donated his entire personal art collection to the museum he founded in Youngstown, Ohio, the Butler Institute of American Art, the first museum in the country dedicated exclusively to American art. From its inception, the Butler collected and celebrated works by American women and Black Americans. It is there today, a noted museum, free admission to all ( Butler was my great-great grandfather, the grandfather of my grandmother, whose husband (Capt. Benj. L. Agler) served on the Western Front in the 4th Division and in occupied Germany with the 26th Division. Butler volunteered, as did Agler, to further the combined causes of the U.S. and France during and after the Great War. 

Sources:; Recollections of Men and Events; Report to the American Manufacturers Export Association by the American Industrial Commission to France, September–October 1916.


  1. Amazing trip in France. Thanks very much for the History lesson. PA and OH sure produced alot of material for WW1.

  2. Joseph Lambert, Jr.August 22, 2022 at 1:17 PM

    Great article. I'm sorry that I am just seeing this now (August 2022).
    Please check out McFarland Publishing website, "First Citizen, The Industrious Life of Joseph G. Butler, Jr." I have been fascinated with Butler for more than three decades and have finally been able to bring his life's story to the world.