Salvation Army going back to its past to serve original ‘doughnut girl’ treats at HD balloon fest

Huntington native and Salvation Army officer Helen Purviance became known as the original “doughnut girl” after frying the treats for World War I soldiers serving on the front lines in France in 1917.
Huntington native and Salvation Army officer Helen Purviance became known as the original “doughnut girl” after frying the treats for World War I soldiers serving on the front lines in France in 1917. Photo provided.

Originally published June 12, 2017.

Helen Purviance was 28 when she gained fame as the “doughnut girl” of World War I.

The Huntington native, then an ensign with The Salvation Army, was ministering to soldiers on the front lines in France in 1917 when she and a friend surprised the men with freshly-fried treats.

A century later, the doughnuts are coming back to Huntington, served up freshly made by Salvation Army Capt. Dennis Marak and his crew using Purviance’s original recipe.

“The recipe is online,” Marak explains — a far cry from the days when Purviance likely carried the recipe in her head.

Marak and his wife, Capt. Antonia Marak, along with a few volunteers will be frying up the cake-type doughnuts at a booth on Saturday, June 17, from 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. during the Heritage Days Balloon Festival.

It’s a new venture for the local Salvation Army, and one that Marak says recognizes the Huntington church’s connection with Purviance and her World War I doughnuts.

“Helen Purviance was born here and she started the doughnut thing,” Marak explains.

But The Salvation Army’s connection with the Purviance family goes back even farther than Helen and her doughnuts. It started in 1889, when the church first came to Huntington.

“When they came, they rented two rooms from Helen’s mother,” Marak says.

Helen — who, coincidentally, was born in 1889 — eventually moved to New York to attend Salvation Army officer training. She went to France in 1917, serving alongside the men of the American First Division.

She and other women from The Salvation Army ministered to the soldiers by providing services such as sewing on buttons, holding worship services and reading letters, newspapers and the Bible, Marak says — hoping to provide emotional, physical and spiritual help to the men fighting in World War I.

And then they made doughnuts.

“The men were tired of the Army food that came in cans,” Marak says.

Purviance made the first doughnuts from flour, sugar, baking powder, canned milk and vanilla that arrived on an ammunition train, adding eggs acquired from French villagers, and frying them in lard. The treats were a hit with the soldiers, who wrote letters back home extolling the “lassies.”

The Maraks will duplicate Purviance’s recipe, even frying the doughnuts in lard donated by The Meat Shop. Marak says he’s coming into the project with precious little experience.

“I learned when I was a teen from my grandma,” he says. He and his grandmother made paczkis, traditional Polish pastry that they filled with prunes.

“I suspect after I’m done with this I’ll be very experienced,” he says.

He says he’s expecting to make between 1,500 and 2,000 doughnuts — plus doughnut holes for the kids.

Purviance and her crew made 150 doughnuts their first time out, eventually upping that number to between 2,500 and 9,000 doughnuts a day.

The Maraks made a trial run with the doughnuts a couple of weeks ahead of time, practicing stirring up and frying the dough.

Marak will also have some Salvation Army items from Purviance’s time on display, including the “doughnut girl” outfits worn by Purviance and her crew.

Women dressed as “doughnut girls” will march with him in the Heritage Days parade alongside a Salvation Army emergency vehicle, also known as a canteen.

Purviance, the woman who started it all, retired from The Salvation Army as a lieutenant colonel. She spent her last years at the Peabody Retirement Community, in North Manchester. After her death in 1984, she was buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery, in Huntington County.