TBT: Celebrating the Centennial

The Illinois Centennial Banner.
Photo from the Illinois Digital Archives
As the 100th anniversary of Illinois’ statehood neared, celebrations were being held throughout the state. All of this was going on against the backdrop of World War I, which America had entered the year before.

What had initially been planned as a huge celebration had very nearly been cancelled until Governor Frank Lowden issued a proclamation which called on Illinoisans to strengthen themselves against the current struggle by recalling the great challenges of the past. The state that had done so much to bring about victory in the Civil War would now celebrate its past while facing the trial of the First World War.

Centennial celebrations across the state took on a patriotic fervor and were held alongside war bond drives and fundraisers for war relief charities. Commemorations of important dates in Illinois history, like Lincoln’s birthday, were combined with centennial celebrations. These joint celebrations went into high gear on the 4thof July in the centennial year of 1918. While a state commission helped organize and coordinate statewide commemoration events, it was the local events in cities and towns across Illinois that brought the centennial right to the everyday people of the state.

“More than one thousand celebrations were held in different parts of the State. Flags and banners were the principal decorations. ‘America’ and ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ mingled with ‘Over There’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning,’” wrote Hugh S. Magill, Jr., the Director of the Illinois Centennial Celebration. “Pageants, processionals and patriotic addresses recalled the story of the past and inspired the people of Illinois to count no burden too heavy, no sacrifice too great, in those anxious days of crisis and peril.”

Throughout the centennial year, local celebrations were planned across the state by county governments, Grand Army of the Republic chapters and many local civic clubs. Emphasis was placed on recalling the great history of Illinois’ first 100 years. Local celebration organizers took to this task with gusto, making the celebration an opportunity to place monuments to important events in local history.

The Elijah P. Lovejoy printing press that was recovered from the
Mississippi River in 1915. The printing press will be on permanent
display at the Genealogy & Local History Library in Alton beginning
November 4, 2018.  Photo from the Hayner Public Library.

In Alton, organizers displayed abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy’s printing press which had been retrieved from the bottom of the Mississippi River where it was dumped following his 1837 murder by a pro-slavery mob. Marion’s centennial committee marked the spot where Congressman John A. Logan delivered his 1861 speech credited with keeping Southern Illinois loyal to the Union at the outset of the Civil War. In Jersey County, organizers dedicated a monument at what was believed to be the site of the first free school in Illinois, while Sangamon County placed a monument at its first school house.

Organizers elsewhere memorialized the Bryant Cottage in Piatt County, Libertyville’s first post office, the first hydropower site on the Mississippi River in Rock Island County, and the site of Abraham Lincoln’s “Lost Speech” in Bloomington. The Lincoln Trail Homestead State Park outside Decatur and the Governor Duncan Mansion in Jacksonville were memorialized due to the efforts of the local centennial celebration committee. Many of these memorials and monuments still stand today.

Jessie Palmer Weber, Secretary of the Illinois Centennial Commission, singled out several of the 1000 local celebrations as noteworthy. “The Centennial Pageant given at Starved Rock on July 4, 5 and 6, was one of the most elaborate and impressive celebrations held anywhere in the State,” she wrote in her history of the centennial year. “Every part of LaSalle County was represented in the cast, and one of the most delightful features was the spirit of community cooperation.”
Photo from the Illinois Digital Archives.
“The Illinois centennial pageant which is now being staged at Starved Rock park is attracting thousands of visitors to the historic and scenic spot. The pageant is a mammoth production participated in by 700 performers, including many of the prominent business and professional men of LaSalle County, as well as society leaders in this part of the state,” reported the Rockford Register-Gazette. “The arrival of the pathfinders and the pioneers of Illinois are depicted in a most impressive manner, and the important events in the history of the state are shown in the succeeding scenes.”

Rockford staged a massive celebration on July 4, with an estimated 100,000 visitors. It combined the celebration of Independence Day with a send-off for the 86thDivision of the U.S Army; which had trained at nearby Camp Grant; and the centennial. The day included a morning-long parade attended by Secretary of War Newton Baker, an afternoon boxing exhibition between Camp Grant soldiers and the “champions of the Canadian Army” (reportedly the Americans won every bout), and the Illinois Centennial Pageant that evening featuring “700 young people of Rockford,” according to the Register-Gazette. “Rockford saw the biggest parade today she has ever seen in the eighty-four years of her history,” wrote the paper. The evening concluded with fireworks.

That same day, “Jacksonville and all Morgan county lived and reveled in the glories of the historic past,” according to the Jacksonville Courier, which declared, “Morgan’s Pageant a Splendid Success.”

“The pageant in which was represented the principal events of a proud state’s history wound through the streets of this beautiful old city on Thursday, in this Centennial year of our marvelous progress. It was beyond a doubt a grand success.”
The Illinois Centennial Monument in Logan Square.
Photo from Logan Square Preservation.

A lengthy account followed, describing in detail each of the more than 70 floats which depicted a part of Illinois’ history: including the first French explorers to visit Illinois in the 17thcentury, George Rogers Clark’s soldiers capturing Kaskaskia from the British, General Grant’s Civil War headquarters, Spanish-American war veterans, and everyday scenes from Illinois’ history like a pioneer family and an early public school.

Attendees then heard speeches from dignitaries, once again tying the occasion to the struggle of the Great War. “Every step taken in the promotion of the centennial has been taken to patriotic music, and every utterance has been along patriotic lines,” noted William Rammelkamp, the president of the local historical society.

The Old Salem Lincoln League of Menard County hosted a pageant which “portrayed the historic incidents of Old Salem and of Lincoln’s young manhood,” at Lincoln’s New Salem in September. “Probably no county in the State had a better Centennial organization than Adams County,” Weber wrote of the “Masque of Illinois,” performance which was “given before large audiences at Liberty, Mendon, Golden, Payson and Quincy.”

The celebrations were not confined just to downstate communities. “A complete report of all the celebrations held in Cook County during the Centennial year would fill a volume,” wrote Weber. “A very lively interest was taken in the study of Illinois history, and many pageants worthy of particular note were given.”

Chicago’s Centennial pageant at the Auditorium was performed four times in front of a capacity audience each time. The city of Chicago dedicated its Illinois Centennial Monument in Logan Square as part of its six-day commemoration festival in October with Governor Lowden offering the keynote speech at the ceremony.

“Thus Illinois celebrated her hundredth birthday,” wrote Magill. “Not in empty pomp and idle boasting, but in high resolve that the present and future of our great State shall be worthy of the noble souls who have made glorious her past.”

For Part 1 of this series click here.