TBT: The Illinois Centennial

Image from the program cover of “The Wonderful Story of Illinois” pageant.
Photo from the Illinois Digital Archives.
A celebration one hundred years in the making almost didn’t happen.

One hundred years ago, Illinoisans were planning the celebration of the Illinois Centennial, the 100th anniversary of Illinois’ statehood. A commission had been created by the 48th General Assembly in 1913 to begin planning and coordinating the commemoration of the anniversary, which would fall on December 3, 1918. Excitement for the big day was building, as communities all across the state planned their celebrations.

And then came the Great War.

America entered World War I on April 6, 1917, and the nation’s priorities immediately changed. With the nation’s attention turned toward the war, festivals and revelry seemed somewhat out of place. War bond drives and events to benefit the Red Cross took precedence. Questions abounded as to whether Illinois’ centennial celebration would happen or not.

Finally, Governor Frank Lowden was called upon to decide whether or not to proceed. In October 1917 he issued a proclamation with his answer.
Governor Frank O. Lowden, ca. 1920.

“It is thought by some that the time is not fitting for this celebration, because of the world-wide war in which we find ourselves. I do not share this view. I realize the greatness of the burdens this war imposed on us. We, of Illinois, will bear those burdens more lightly if we shall recall the first hundred years of Illinois’ achievements. Our fathers before us, too, bore heavy burdens. They, too, knew what it meant to offer all for a great cause. They, too, faced danger and difficulty. But they triumphed over all….It will help Illinois to play a great part in this war if her people will refresh their courage and strengthen their will by the study of our first hundred years.”

Mindful of the burdens and the sacrifice that the people were being called upon to make, and intensely proud of the sacrifices which our state had already made for the nation in its first 100 years of statehood, the celebration was on.

The centennial year kicked off with ceremonies in Springfield on December 3, 1917, the state’s 99th birthday. Representatives of local centennial planning committees met in the state Senate chamber to discuss their various local plans. Governor Lowden then hosted the gathering at a reception in the Executive Mansion.

The evening concluded with a banquet at Springfield’s Leland Hotel. About 400 attendees heard from a list of speakers which included former Governor Joseph Fifer, who had been severely wounded at the Civil War battle of Vicksburg. The celebration of the centennial was quickly merged with the patriotic spirit sweeping the nation. The speakers invoked the spirit of Lincoln and Grant to remind Illinoisans of the state’s great contributions to history and to prepare them to meet the wartime challenges that lay ahead.

Throughout the centennial year, important dates in Illinois history were marked with large celebrations. That year’s Lincoln’s Birthday celebration in Springfield included a selection of patriotic songs performed by 1200 local children and an address by one of the last surviving delegates to the 1860 convention which had nominated Lincoln for President. In April, the state marked the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Illinois Enabling Act with a two-day symposium in the Hall of Representatives on Illinois history attended by distinguished historians and dignitaries.

July 4 proved to be a very popular date for local committees to hold their celebrations.*

More than 20,000 spectators crowded into the State Fairgrounds for the August 26th anniversary of the enactment of the first State Constitution. Perhaps the most popular attraction at this event was a patriotic address delivered by former President Theodore Roosevelt in one of his last public appearances. The weekend-long celebration of the October inauguration of our first Governor included a theatrical performance at the State Fairgrounds, with all proceeds being donated to the Red Cross.

Those October events also marked an important milestone at the State Capitol complex. As part of that celebration, the cornerstone was laid for a new building southwest of the Capitol to be called the Centennial Building. “Let us look upon this cornerstone which we lay today not simply as a cornerstone of this Memorial Building,” said Governor Lowden, “but also as a cornerstone of a century of freedom and progress and greatness, such as made the century which we are closing.”

The Centennial Building – Now the Michael J. Howlett Building in Springfield. Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
World War I ended on November 11, 1918, just weeks before the centennial. “With the victorious close of the great war has come the opening of a new period, whose significant watchword is Reconstruction,” wrote architect Edgar Martin, who had just been hired as the supervising architect of the Centennial Building project.

The new building was to hold additional office space needed to ease crowding in the Capitol, as well as an auditorium and Memorial Hall, which would one day house the battle flags of Illinois soldiers from the Civil War. Today the building, with additions which were constructed years later, is called the Michael J. Howlett Building and is home to many of the offices of the Illinois Secretary of State. The Memorial Hall still stands in tribute to Illinoisans’ military service, but the flags themselves have been moved to a different location for better preservation. The statues of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas which stand outside the Capitol’s east entrance were also dedicated that day.

Jessie Palmer Weber, Secretary of the Illinois Centennial Commission wrote in the state’s official history of the centennial that “…the Centennial Commission from its organization began to make plans to reproduce for the people of Illinois the wonderful story of the Prairie State by means of a pageant of historic truth and of poetic imagery and beauty, so presented as to visualize the stirring and momentous events in the life of our great commonwealth in such a way as to be unforgettable in the hearts and minds of those who beheld it.”

The flag of the Illinois Centennial.
The commission designated Wallace Rice as its Pageant Writer. Rice and Frederick Bruegger were charged with writing and producing pageants and masques; a show similar to a musical or a ballet, featuring singing and dancing by costumed and masked performers; for performance at the celebrations. Rice prepared six plays which were then performed in schools across Illinois. Their other shows included The Pageant of the Illinois Country and The Masque of Illinois, which became the official masque of the centennial.

The Masque of Illinois “portrayed in a series of beautiful scenes the thrilling history of the State.” In the first performance, given at the State Fairgrounds in late August, First Daughter Florence Lowden was cast in the role of “Illinois.” She “acted the part of ‘Illinois’ with great dignity and her enunciation of the words was excellent,” wrote Weber. Performances like these were the centerpiece of many of the celebrations of the centennial.

The responsibility for publicizing the centennial fell to a committee on publicity of the Centennial Commission. Throughout the year they commissioned a poster contest (won by a New Yorker) and published a weekly newsletter for citizens and civic groups. The commission estimated that more than 50,000 articles about the centennial were published in Illinois newspapers.

Congress even got into the act, passing legislation sponsored by Illinois Congressman Loren Wheeler directing the U.S. Mint to produce one hundred thousand fifty-cent coins marking the Illinois Centennial. The coin featured a design with Lincoln on the front and the Illinois State Seal on the back along with the words “Centennial of the State of Illinois 1818-1918.” The coins were distributed to local centennial commemorative organizations, which then sold them for one dollar each, the profits being either used to finance the local celebration or donated to a war relief charity.

The Centennial Commission itself hosted several important celebrations, branding these the “official” state celebrations. Local events were left to organizing committees throughout the state. Official events were held in locations around the state selected for their ties to Illinois history. But these plans hit a snag early on.

A celebration was planned for Kaskaskia, the state’s first capital city, on July 4. But by 1918 most of Kaskaskia was either beneath the Mississippi River or on the other side of it. Therefore the Kaskaskia celebration had to be held in nearby Chester.

A special train brought the Governor and other state officials down from Springfield for a day of festivities which included a parade, a mass meeting and a performance of The Masque of Illinois in the evening. More than 15,000 people attended the Chester celebration. An observance was held in Evergreen Cemetery which overlooked Kaskaskia and where several of the early settlers were buried. Governor Lowden placed a wreath at the grave of Illinois’ first governor, Shadrach Bond. In September, another official celebration was held in Vandalia, where a former state capitol building still stands.

The official celebration of the centennial year came to a close with an event in the House of Representatives chamber in Springfield on the state’s 100th birthday, December 3. Coming so soon after the armistice which ended World War I, great joy was in the air according to Weber’s chronicle. “The spirit of the meeting was one of exultation and thanksgiving that the Centennial of Illinois had witnessed the close of the frightful war of oppression which had engaged and horrified the world for the past four years, and a feeling of profound joy that the State begins its second century with new and brighter hopes for a hundred years of peace, progress and fraternity.”

* Check back here next week for the story of how cities and towns across Illinois celebrated the Centennial.