Living as we do in a small town, we rarely experience visits by national celebrities or political figures. Because of this the times such a person comes to Minden become etched in the memory of those who are present and see or meet the famous person.
During the 20th century future President Ronald Reagan in 1976, former President Lyndon Johnson in 1969, Governor George Wallace in 1964, and three-time Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1919, visited us. General George S. Patton made a “drive-through” during the 1941 army maneuvers and it is possible that General, later President, Dwight Eisenhower visited our town during those maneuvers. Elvis Presley appeared at the Joy Drive-In in the mid 1950s, just as he was breaking on the national scene. Of course the most regular visitor of national renown was Governor, later Senator, Huey P. Long. North Louisiana was Huey’s base and during the years between 1918 and his death in 1935, he spoke in Minden on a dozen or more occasions. Many of those speeches, because of Long’s flamboyant and controversial nature, saw memorable events accompanying the speech. However, the topic of today’s column will be another visit by a nationally recognizable name during the 1920s. His appearance prompted a banner headline in the Webster Signal of Thursday, March 6, 1924, “SUNDAY HERE SATURDAY.” Our topic in today’s Echo of Our Past is the day Billy Sunday came to Minden.
I’m sure that many may be wondering who was Billy Sunday. Sunday was the first great traveling evangelist of the 20th century in the United States. His stature in the first three decades of the 1900s was equal to, if not greater than, that held by Billy Graham in the modern era. Sunday, unlike Graham, was not just an inspiring preacher; he was a religious P.T. Barnum. A consummate showman, he engaged in acrobatics on stage and was nearly as well known for his on-stage antics as he was for his message.
Born in Iowa in 1862, William Ashley Sunday was raised in an orphanage, as his father was killed in the Civil War when Billy was an infant. By 1883, Billy had used his baseball skills to reach the major leagues with the Chicago White Sox, then in the National League. For the next 8 years he was among the most outstanding players in the league. Sunday’s specialty was base stealing, as over his career he had the remarkable achievement of stealing 246 bases without ever being caught stealing. During the first three years of his career, Sunday lived the hard-drinking lifestyle of most ballplayers of that day. However, in 1886, he became a Christian, under the guidance of a street preacher at a Chicago mission. By 1891, Sunday, then only 29 and at the peak of his game, retired from baseball to go to work for the YMCA. He recognized his preaching skills and by 1903 was ordained as minister and began his traveling crusades.
During the years between 1903 through 1920, Sunday was a major player on the national stage. His goal in those years was the prohibition of the sale of alcohol, and he is credited as being one of the main influences in the passage of the 19th Amendment that launched prohibition. Sunday held crusades in cities and towns across the nation. In one 8-week crusade in Philadelphia attendance at the meetings totaled 2.3 million people. Sunday’s staff would supervise the building of temporary auditoriums or tents to hold the massive crowds. On stage, Sunday would do flips, demonstrate his sliding technique from his baseball days, and leap to the top of chairs and podiums. He preached fiery sermons and caught up the audience in the fervor of his message. One oft repeated antic occurred at the conclusion of the taking of the offering. Sunday would grab the offering plates, remove the bills and throw the change back at the audience proclaiming, “God doesn’t need your pennies.” At the end of each message, hundreds would walk the aisle or as Sunday referred to it as “hitting the sawdust trail” since the floor of his tents or temporary buildings always had a sawdust floor.
After the institution of national prohibition, Sunday’s star dimmed slightly. Still a well-known figure, his most dramatic sermons had been on the topic of drinking, the crowds became smaller in the early 1920s, but Sunday’s crusades continued. In February 1924, he came to Shreveport for an 8-week crusade. The meeting was held under a huge tent at the corner of Milam and Grand, the site where the Municipal Auditorium would later be built in 1929. Crowds of more than eight thousand were present every night, and hundreds were converted in the preaching. My mother was about 8 months old during the time of this crusade and her parents attending the meeting one night. With such a large crowd, there were hundreds of babies present, and they were kept in a special section. My grandfather as a 54-year old first-time father, was extremely alarmed that someone would mistakenly get his precious daughter in the sea of infants and kept insisting that my grandmother tie a colored ribbon to my mother’s diaper to make sure she was identifiable.
During the course of the crusade the newly formed Minden Department Club decided it would be an excellent idea to invite Sunday to make an appearance in Minden. The new Minden High School had been opened the previous fall and the community had been bringing various civic and religious events to the auditorium of the new school for public entertainment. During the course of his crusades, Sunday would make such appearances in smaller communities during the days. His regular nightly meetings charged admission and took an offering but Sunday charged no admission for these special rallies and the entire offering was always dedicated to the Winona Bible Institute in Winona, Indiana where Sunday made his home.
The local club sent J. B. Snell and several local ministers as its representatives to negotiate with Sunday’s manager. They were able to obtain one of these special one-time rallies for Minden. The local residents considered this quite a coup, as Sunday was preaching only his second crusade in Louisiana. He had preached a crusade in New Orleans prior to 1920 and was now in Shreveport. Minden would become only the third site in Louisiana to host a Sunday speaking engagement. The newspaper coverage mentioned that Shreveport had spent several years in negotiations to get Sunday to come to their city and how proud Minden should be of this unique opportunity. The meeting was set for 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 8, 1924 at the Minden High School Auditorium.
The town of Minden was abuzz that Saturday morning as people scurried to reach the high school early. While the new auditorium was large for Minden, it was expected that seats would be at a premium. Those ideas proved true as the early arrivals claimed all the chairs and later comers were restricted to standing room, as the crowd was estimated at more than 1200 people. The paper commented that this was the largest crowd to attend any type of meeting in Minden, probably larger than the group that heard the address by William Jennings Bryan at the railroad depot in August 1919.
Those coming who expected to see the famous antics of Sunday were probably disappointed. Sunday was now 61 years old, and his on-stage acrobatics had become more infrequent as he grew older. In fact, the Minden crowd heard a rather subdued Billy Sunday, for in addition to his age; he was suffering from a severe cold on that Saturday morning. The illness caused a shorter than usual address by the evangelist, as he spoke for only 50 minutes. The newspaper accounts do not record if there was any music on the program. Sunday had famed Christian musicians Homer Rodeheaver and B. D. Ackley on staff as part of his crusades, but apparently these small-town rallies featured only Sunday. It seems likely these were solo appearances because he was doing them as a fund-raiser for his hometown Bible Institute.
Sunday’s sermon topic was the Psalms of David and the reporter for the Signal gave the following account of events. “Sunday held the rapt attention of his audience. His eloquence and earnestness, and his apt and inimitable expressions seemed to meet the approbation of those who heard him. In closing he prayed a prayer of deep feeling and beauty. A collection was taken for the benefit of the Winona Bible Institute of Winona Lake, Indiana, Mr. Sunday’s home and of which he is a benefactor. A substantial sum was raised.” The reporter’s account make no mention of anyone “hitting the sawdust trail,” but tradition would cause us to believe that several did walk the aisle. Sunday always found a way to reach hearts. Eleven years later in his last sermon, preached in a small Indiana town less than two weeks before his death, 44 people made decisions. I feel sure there were some decisions made here in Minden on that Saturday in March. The very next night a group of more than 100 Minden residents made the trip to Shreveport to hear a second message by Sunday, so he did make an impact in Minden.
In closing, we have discussed one of the memorable celebrity visits that are part of the Echoes of Our Past. I am sure I have omitted some celebrity visitors, boxing great Jack Dempsey did visit Minden as part of a political campaign tour in the early 1950s, Earl Long normally had various celebrities as part of his caravan. I have seen a picture of Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Minden, but have never been able to find a date or any newspaper coverage of the event. Who knows which celebrity might next visit our little town and create another Echo of Our Past.
Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.