Fred Barnett Wheeler: Alumnus, Soldier, Councilman, Mayor


Fred Wheeler, left, supervises grinding graphite for the nuclear reactor, 1951Fred Wheeler, left, supervises grinding graphite for the nuclear reactor, 1951

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of U.S. participation in World War I, Special Collections continues its examination of the impact that the war had on NC State students, faculty, and campus.  In this post, we examine the life of Fred Barnett Wheeler, NCSU alumnus and professor, World War I veteran, councilman, and mayor of Raleigh.

Fred Wheeler was born June 10, 1886 in Guilford County, possibly High Point (the North Carolina A&M Catalogue from 1912 indicates he was from there).  He began teaching classes in forge work and foundry at NC State (then State College) before he even graduated in 1912 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.  He continued teaching at State after graduating, adding woodworking and pattern making to his curriculum.  In the fall of 1917, Wheeler entered the military and was sent to the Overseas Gas Defense Service, a unit of the Chemical Warfare Division of the army, on account of his skill in mechanical engineering.  The Alumni News, Volume 1, No. 1 of November 1, 1917 reports he was sent to Allentown, Pennsylvania, most likely to Camp Crane.  Camp Crane was the training camp for the United States Army Ambulance Service, founded primarily to assist the French allies on the war front.  It also contained one unit of the Gas Defense Service, which deployed to France in November of 1917.  

In response to widespread casualties caused by mustard gas on the front lines, General John Pershing hastily founded the Gas Defense Service to develop defenses, manufacture and promote the proper usage of gas masks, and produce its own gases to be used against the Germans.   Their work was critical, as grisly reports of soldiers unable to effectively use their gas masks rolled in.  It was in this milieu that Fred Wheeler wrote letters home, as reported in the Alumni News, Volume 1, No. 5 of March 1, 1918.

"Mr. Wheeler is in charge of some construction work, and he said that the barracks which had recently been completed were built of Mississippi pine, which looked mighty good to the boys."

No doubt his experience in woodworking and forge came in handy.  Later, in Volume 1, No. 10 of the Alumni News from August 1, 1918, Wheeler is in Tours, France, an important supplies hub, gaining more valuable experience:

"Mr. Wheeler says he has done all kinds of work since he has been in France, such as designing factories, shells, machinery, etc., and work in pipe and refrigeration in connection with gas.  He said he had recently had an interesting trip through England.  Mr. Wheeler entered the service as a private and has been recommended for a commission."

As recounted in the March 27, 1925 Technician, Wheeler at some point became chief draftsman for the Chemical Warfare Service, a job he was no doubt well suited for based on his experience at State.  Following his discharge in 1918, Wheeler took a job as sales engineer for the High Point Machine Company.  The Chemical Warfare Service changed its name to the Chemical Corps in 1946 and still exists today, maintaining defensive capabilities against chemical agents.

In 1923, Wheeler returned to NCSU and resumed his duties as instructor of mechanical engineering.  An excerpt from the Technician of March 27, 1925 provides a snapshot of Professor Wheeler's busy shop:

"He [Frank Wheeler] led the way down stairs again and to a very large room which was filled with every conceivable kind of machine, each driven by a separate motor.  There were two long rows of lathes for making round articles; a planer for smoothing lumber; a jointer for smoothing edges of wood [...] The use of all these were explained in detail.  We were shown the paint room where the finishing of furniture is studied - where birch and poplar are transformed into mahogany."

The author goes on to describe the items made by the students in Wheeler's shops:

"There before us was a collection of beautifully carved floor lamps, cedar chests of every shape and description, table lamps, candlesticks, various kinds of tables and chairs, a walnut four-post bed [..] We were told that, besides these, practically all the furniture for the college dormitories and laboratories are made here."

Technician, March 27, 1925

These passages reveal the mark Wheeler made on NC State during his 41 year tenure, including constructing and designing floodlights for the Memorial Bell Tower.  In 1947 he was elected a member of Raleigh City Council and became mayor of Raleigh in 1953.  He was the first NC State faculty member to become mayor of Raleigh.  He retired from NC State in 1954 and stepped down as mayor in 1957.  He passed away at the age of 71 on December 11, 1957.  One of the largest reservoirs in Raleigh, Lake Wheeler, was named for him.

Other Special Collections News Articles about World War I

Preparing for World War I

NC State During World War I

Robert Opie Lindsay, North Carolina's Only Flying Ace

Who was Eliza Riddick?

From Somewhere in France: Letters from Alumni in World War I

World War I and Agriculture