My wife and a friend of hers are having a minor argument over whether Belleville ever had a Veterans Day parade. My wife says it did; her friend disagrees. Never wanting to disagree with my wife, I told her she was right, but I'd like the weight of the Answer Man behind me. -- E.J., of Belleville
I'm happy I won't have to upset your domestic tranquility. Ever since I was a youngster, I had it drilled into me that Belleville was the paradingest town in the United States. So anybody who thinks the city would miss a chance to march down the street with flags fluttering, trumpets blaring and officials waving doesn't know Belleville very well.
That was certainly true for Veterans Day, which was first observed Nov. 11, 1919, by proclamation of President Woodrow Wilson. It was exactly one year after the signing of the armistice, and Wilson figured it was a good time for the nation to reflect on the four-year conflict the world had suffered through.
"To us in America," Wilson said, "the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory."
Although not a national holiday yet, Belleville joined the observance with ceremonies at the Public Square. Thousands gathered to hear a speech by Belleville Township High School Principal H.G. Schmidt and witness Mayor P.K. Johnson accept a service flag with more than 1,100 stars that had been sewn by community women.
"Part of the ceremony was the pinning of the 43 gold stars on the emblem, symbolic of the number of servicemen from this city who failed to return," the News-Democrat reported the next day.
But soon, simple solemn ceremonies no longer satisfied local veterans groups. A parade clearly was necessary. So on Nov. 11, 1924, a new marching band organized by the American Legion braved dreary skies to lead veterans and the Legion's auxiliary on a march from City Hall around the downtown area to the Lincoln Theatre for music and speeches.
For more than 60 years, those parades continued, growing in both size and length even though the city and the nation wrestled at first over exactly how to treat the day. In the very year that Belleville held its first parade, banks and barbershops closed, but many other stores remained open. (Imagine that!) Incensed, Alderman Charles Bauer, a barber, issued a public statement imploring the entire community to show proper respect in future years.
"This day in my opinion is as sacred as July 4th or Decoration Day for the simple reason it was for the freedom of our country," he wrote on Nov. 11. "Therefore, be it resolved in the City of Belleville that hereafter all business, immaterial, will co-operate and observe this day."
You have to wonder what he had thought of this story the same day in the News-Democrat:
"Armistice Day was marked by the exodus of hundreds of Belleville hunters in quest of quail, rabbits and ducks. Reports were received of heavy shooting in the southern part of the county and in the Okaw bottoms, the bombardment being particularly terrific in the High Prairie quail country."
Nevertheless, interest and participation in the holiday remained high as Congress made it a legal holiday in 1938 and renamed it Veterans Day on June 1, 1954, to honor all who served. Eventually, the Belleville parade began at St. Mary's Church, marching down Main to the Public Square and then south to the former VFW Post 1739 home at Monroe and South Illinois.
But interest in such an elaborate ceremony eventually began to wane. By 1987, the News-Democrat reported that sizable stretches of the parade route were devoid of spectators, which seemed to match the effort being put into the parade itself. No high school bands marched that year.
"It seems like less and less come out to view the parade," lamented James Muir, American Legion Post 58 commander at the time. "Less and less participation from the service organizations. The schools are at a point where they won't even send a band. I don't know what it is."
Whatever it was, they never got it back. In 1988, Belleville veterans groups scrapped the parade in favor of ceremonies at the old Panorama Lanes, where more than 300 turned out for a dinner.
"I personally love the parade idea, but because of poor participation ... they've gone to this format," the late Mayor Richard Brauer said. "I think this is good and I think it will grow."
Let's just hope vets are never totally forgotten.
How many gallons of fuel can a Boeing 747-400 jet hold?
Answer to Saturday's trivia: In the 1860s, printer-publisher Stephen Toof bought a 500-acre farm outside Memphis. He named it for his daughter, Grace. On March 17, 1957, Elvis Presley's parents put down a $1,000 deposit to buy it from Stephen Toof's granddaughter, Ruth Brown. Today, roughly 600,000 people visit Graceland every year.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or firstname.lastname@example.org