Was there ever a more thankful Thanksgiving than the one held Nov. 28, 1918, which came fast on the heels of the one-two punch represented by the end of World War I and the arrival of the great influenza pandemic?
“Never in the history of the world has there been greater rejoicing and for a more earnest expression of thanks than at this time, following four years of bloody warfare,” declared The Pantagraph on the occasion of Thanksgiving 1918.
Indeed, though a touch hyperbolic, this observation was fair enough, given the tremendous outpouring of relief resulting from the end of the “Great War,” an incomprehensible tragedy that claimed the lives of some 9 million to 11 million soldiers and 8 million civilians.
The armistice took effect on Nov. 11, 1918 — the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” The news from Europe reached Bloomington at 1:50 a.m. local time on Tuesday, Nov. 12. By 3:00 a.m., downtown Bloomington was packed with raucous residents of every age, race and class.
“There was no order and little law during the celebration,” remarked The Pantagraph. “Policeman helped rather than hindered the festivities. Their revolvers were the first to awaken the city and herald the news that peace had come.” Folks generally behaved, all things considered, though some of the more hot-blooded in the crowd hung, quartered and burned German Kaiser Wilhelm II in effigy.
As the wild celebrations settled down, area residents began taking sober stock of the armistice and what it meant to the traumatized nation and its irreparably wounded communities, families and veterans.
And as if that wasn’t enough, as the pointless war neared its bloody, pointless end, the influenza pandemic of 1918 raged across the globe, killing some 600,000 Americans alone. The “Spanish Flu” likely stands as the deadliest epidemic in human history, responsible as it was for killing tens of millions of people worldwide.
This super-virulent strain of influenza reached the Twin Cities in September, and by Oct. 11, 1918, all Bloomington schools, churches and theaters were closed in an effort to halt the spread of the deadly contagion. One week later, there were an estimated 1,700 influenza cases in Bloomington. It got so bad that Bloomington Country Club’s clubhouse and Julia Scott’s home on East Taylor Street (now the Vrooman Mansion bed and breakfast) were converted into hospitals.
Although schools and churches reopened the first week of November, and things began returning to normal, there were still many hundreds of local residents still too sick to enjoy Thanksgiving.
On the national level, there was talk of creating a new national holiday by combining Thanksgiving with Armistice Day, with one New England newspaper suggesting the joint commemoration be held the second Monday in November. Of course, nothing ever came of this idea, and Armistice Day is now observed every November 11 as Veterans Day.
“It is early to talk about quotations for turkeys,” noted The Pantagraph’s market column one week before Thanksgiving, “but they will be so high that most households will find chicken, duck or goose on the banquet board this year.” Although wartime rationing was the obvious culprit when it came to the national gobbler shortage, a severe drought in Texas also played a role.
Even back in 1918 some folks preferred to leave the hustle, bustle, worry and woe of preparing and hosting a Thanksgiving meal behind in favor of eating out. The Green Mill, which advertised itself as “Bloomington’s wonder cafe,” offered a nine-course “victory celebration” dinner, headlined by that season’s pricey rarity — turkey.
There was no turkey at the Jolly Hour cafeteria, located in the Metropole Hotel on the east side of the courthouse square. No turkey, perhaps, but the Jolly Hour menu featured roast goose, roast chicken with dressing, cranberry and apple sauce, sweet pickles, olives, celery, wax beans, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, buttered onions, mince and gooseberry pies, Waldorf salad, fruit salad, and finally, cake and ice cream.
It was a muted Thanksgiving at the Illinois Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home (later known as the Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School) in north Normal, what with more than 100 children still sick with the influenza. Those with an appetite enjoyed a chicken dinner, oysters, and other “eatables and treats” thanks in part to a last-minute gift of $75 by the local grand lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
There was a big celebration at the Girls’ Industrial Home, for Thanksgiving promised not only a chicken dinner and ice cream for dessert, but the end of four weeks of confinement due to the influenza. Visitors were discouraged, however, because the girls had to spend much of the day fumigating and cleaning their house.
McLean County Sheriff George E. Flesher said “the boys” in the jail (that is, prisoners) could count on pork chops and “a number of extras,” while residents of the McLean County Poor Farm sat down to a chicken dinner.
There was a union service of Bloomington’s Protestant churches at Second Presbyterian. Illinois Wesleyan President Theodore Kemp delivered a sermon that welcomed the nation’s turn away from isolationism and rapid embrace of internationalism.”We have taken at last our place among the nations, instead of standing outside like little children in the marketplace, refusing to dance when the world’s piper played to mourn to a worldwide dirge,” he said. “For the first time in our history we have a real right to the term ‘nation’; we are Ishmaelites no longer.”
High mass was celebrated at Bloomington’s three Catholic churches — Holy Trinity, St. Patrick’s and St. Mary’s. At Holy Trinity, Father Martin J. Spaulding led a service that doubled as a memorial for Eugene Conley and Eugene McCarthy, two parishioners who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war.
The grotesquely misnamed “war to end all wars” helped usher in sweeping social, political and economic changes in American society. Motion pictures, to cite one example, represented the coming age of electronic popular culture.
And so if residents were dinning out, some were also catching a show at the Chatterton Opera House on East Market Street (now Abundant Life in Christ Church). Although built for live entertainment, by 1918 the Chatterton was also showing silent films. On Thanksgiving it was the six-reel bedroom comedy “Fair and Warmer,” written by “America’s foremost writer of farce,” Avery Hopwood. There were matinee and evening screenings, with tickets from 50 cents to $1.50 (or roughly $7.75 to $23.25 in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars).
Clearly, not everyone was in the mood for somber reflection. Some locals simply wanted to laugh and, for at least an hour or so, leave the bruised and battered world behind.