Last Sunday, November 11, was the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended fighting in World War I. Every November since 1918, our national consciousness has turned to recognizing and remembering the contribution to our freedom made by our veterans. The armistice that ended World War I took effect at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918. The conclusion of the “war to end all wars” was a day of celebration that left such impact that its anniversary became a special occasion to commemorate those individuals willing to make the sacrifice for our way of life. From 1919 until 1954, the holiday was known as Armistice Day. However, in the aftermath of the Korean Conflict, Congress decided that the name should be expanded to include all who had served our country and the name was changed to Veterans Day. Today’s Echo of Our Past will be a look back at the early celebrations of Armistice Day in Minden.
The first Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, was in some ways a unique celebration. The agreement to end the war had been reached on November 9 and the official cease-fire would take effect at 11 a.m. on November 11. Thus, the world had warning and time to schedule celebrations in advance. Here in Minden the end of the war was greeted with the ringing of church bells and a community prayer meeting, along with an impromptu “Mayberry moment.” A group of enthusiastic citizens borrowed a Civil War era cannon from the Chaffe family and took it down the street to the Methodist Church’s property to fire a celebratory salute. Unfortunately, these men had no experience with such a weapon and loaded entirely too much powder into the old weapon. When fired the cannon burst to pieces, scattering debris, but luckily injuring no one. So, Minden’s first Armistice Day certainly got off with a “bang.”
Unfortunately, the newspapers for November 1919 have been lost, so the first post-war celebration we have a record of in Minden came on November 11, 1920. Minden’s new Chamber of Commerce (not the present incarnation of the Chamber which was organized in the early 1940s, but an earlier, short-lived version that died in the mid-1920s) set up a committee of Leroy Rathbun, Walter Webb, Jr., R. H. Lee and J. N. Koch to plan a community-wide celebration of the occasion. According to the newspaper accounts nearly every business house in Minden closed for the parade that day.
The parade formed at Minden High School and went through downtown ending at City Park, where the day’s program was held at the bandstand. The theme of the parade seemed to be happiness and good times, now that we were at peace. The parade was led by a local resident riding on a white horse and dressed as French Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch. You must remember this was the era of the Lafayette Escadrille and “Lafayette, we are here.” The United States felt a kinship with the French people in those days, today, in light of the recent relationship between our two nations it seems strange to see how local residents felt about France in those years. Following “Marshall Foch” were two cars with what were described as “important looking gentlemen whose cognomens and reasons for being in the parade we did not learn.” (That is certainly the only time I’ve ever seen the word “cognomens” in a newspaper article. In case, like me, you have no clue what that means, according to the dictionary it is simply a “two-dollar” way of saying “family name.”) Then came thirty veterans of the conflict followed by the children of the Minden school in a group described as a “half-mile long.” Behind the students marched the teachers from the school and the volunteer ladies of the American Red Cross. The humorous touch returned at the end of the parade with the last group, described in this way: “Last but not least was I. B. Turk and his disconcerted sextet of unharmonious jazz performers. As an orchestra leader Mr. Turk is the champion spaghetti consumer of Italy. This is the only band ever exhibited where it was utterly impossible for any two members to strike the same note at the same time.”
When the procession reached the park, patriotic speeches were made by J. B. Snell and J. H. Nelson. Snell had been principal of Minden High School prior to the start of World War I and had resigned that position in April 1917 to join the Army. Following the program there were various games and contests. The Webster Signal reported that: “After the speaking, contests were held, the most interesting one being the pie eating contest. This was won by Mr. Arthur Dupuy, but his opponents accuse him of unfair methods as part of his pie was found in his ear and eyebrows the next morning.”
That night at 9 p.m. a dance was held over Crichton’s Store, sponsored by the Webster Parish Post of the American Legion (the post did not adopt the now familiar Wiley-Pevy name until later in the 1920s). The post used the third floor of the Crichton building as its meeting hall in those days. Music was provided by a seven-piece jazz orchestra and it was reported that there were sixty couples and more than that number of “non-combatants” present. (Apparently not the same jazz musicians who marched in the earlier parade.) The paper said everyone in Minden that could “shake a foot or enjoying watching it done” was in attendance.
By the next year, 1921, the planning of the event had shifted entirely to the American Legion Post. The parade was eliminated from the agenda, with the focus becoming an evening banquet. The Legion had 2000 flyers advertising the event printed and mailed out in the October bills of local merchants 400 tickets were printed and given to Legion members to sell. The following pre-banquet article appeared in the Webster Signal:
“Do you recall your intense anxiety of three years ago? The war is over, but the warriors are here with us. Many of them are still giving expression to the plaintive inquiry, ‘When do we eat?’ Listen!
“With Armistice Day only one week off, plans are being rapidly perfected by the local post of the American Legion for a celebration fully fitting the occasion. Untiring young men, filled with zeal for the cause, are bending every effort to make this a red-letter day in the social and civic experience of Webster Parish.
“Have you ever been to the ‘Follies?’ If you have or have not, it will be a great misfortune to miss the Legion Banquet on the evening of November 11th.
“There will be turkey and oyster dressing, etc., speeches, orchestra music, solos, quartet selections, and arrangements have been completed for a noted speaker. The services of a high-class caterer have been secured for the preparation of the most elaborate banquet Minden has ever enjoyed and entertainment galore is promised.
“Three long tables are being erected in the Legion Hall and four hundred ladies and gentlemen are expected to be present on this gala occasion. Several numbers on the program have been especially arranged to appeal to the feminine taste and a whole-hearted good time is assured the ladies as well as the men.
“It is hoped that the people of this community will come out on the night of November 11th and assist in this, the celebration of the one great event in our lives.”
Although no events were planned for the day and Armistice Day would not become an official holiday for nearly a decade, nearly fifty local business firms, including all the downtown stores, closed for the celebration at the request of the Legion. The banquet, which began at 7:30 p.m, was the only event scheduled. The upper room at Crichton’s store was arranged with three long tables running the length of the room with the speaker’s table and the platform at the south end of the room. The guest speaker for the banquet was J. B. Nachman, an Alexandria attorney.
The celebration began with the invocation by The Reverend W. F. O’Kelley, pastor of the Minden Presbyterian Church followed by the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner. Post Commander J. H. Brown served as the master of ceremonies for the evening. The orchestra played during the assembly time and while the meal was being served. Nachman’s address focused on the necessity of the United States meeting challenges in the world, pointing out the difference our efforts had made during the war. In describing the significance of Armistice Day, Nachman stated:
“We have assembled tonight to celebrate and commemorate the most significant day in the annals of international history. Significant because it commemorates the supreme sacrifice of those who gave their lives in defense of representative government and world freedom. The signing of the Armistice meant something more than the mere cessation of hostilities, something more than the ending of the greatest carnage known to history. It marked the death of caste, prejudice and autocracy. It marked the beginning of representative government in the Old World.”
In conclusion, the Signal reported:
“The banquet ended with the singing of ‘America’ and we came away with many pleasant memories and more love for our nation burning in our hearts. In this feeling, I think, all shared. If the production of the general spiritual effect was the chief aim of the local post, we may safely say that the members have abundant reason for gratification.”
As the years progressed celebrations of Armistice Day took a back seat as the events of the war drifted further back into the consciousness of local residents. After World War II, of course, the celebration came to be called Veterans Day, but it never seemed to regain the significance it held in those first years after World War I.
From the accounts of the events of nearly 100 years ago, it is obvious that respect and honor for our veterans has always been part of our community. I hope each of you set aside some time on November 11 to remember the contribution made by our veterans and the supreme sacrifice many made to keep us free.
Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.