A city divided: Anti-war sentiment in Belleville on eve of World War I

News-DemocratMay 10, 2014 

Belleville was a conflicted town as the United States came closer and closer to entering World War I.

Many citizens had relatives in Germany. German culture and even the German language were prevalent in Belleville.

Plus, the peace versus war split that was present all across the nation was in Belleville as well.

On April 2, 1917, the Belleville Daily Advocate front page featured a story about an anti-war faction.

"About 50 residents of West Belleville met in the school hall of St. Mary's church Sunday afternoon in response to an announcement of the meeting made yesterday morning in the pulpit by Rev. Father Fred Beuckman and passed resolutions against going to war," the paper wrote.

The group sent telegrams to President Woodrow Wilson, several U.S. senators and are Congressman W.A. Rodenberg urging that the country not go to war.

The St. Clair County Federation of Catholic Societies and the United Catholic Societies also met over the weekend and passed resolutions against the war and sent telegrams.

I don't know if that had any effect, but Rodenberg did vote against the war resolution.

Many local young men joined the military and a leading citizen, Dr. George Hilgard resigned from the city library board after his motion to fly the U.S. flag over the library was amended to wait until war actually was declared.

"Incidentally, the action for which Dr. Hilgard was striving, was carried out, and, at the same time, it was not carried out, until the time for which the majority wanted to wait had arrived for Congress passed the war declaration at three o'clock this morning," the newspaper noted on April 6, 1917.

Once war was declared, most made every effort to back the country.

"Every mail carrier in Belleville is a secret service man with the declaration of war by the United States against Germany," the newspaper wrote. "Every one of the local carriers, as well as every one of the 300,000 letter carriers and rural free delivery employees are under orders from Uncle Sam to scan letters and packages passing through their hands for evidence of plots against the nation."

I wonder where all the mail carriers were when this guy was spouting off?

"The police this morning spent several hours looking for a traveling salesman whom they wanted to hold for the federal authorities," the Daily Advocate wrote. "The salesman appeared at the store of Fuess-Fischer Company this morning and during the course of a conversation with some of the clerks declared that he was ready to fight with Germany against the United States.

"The matter was reported to Clem Fischer who walked over to the salesman and told him in pointed language what he thought of him. Fisher then reported the matter to the police and Chief Stookey ordered the man brought in.

"By the time the police arrived at the store the man had disappeared."

Other stores also showed their patriotism.

"In the hope that Belleville will again send material to the navy department, such as sent from here in the years gone by, the Joseph Saenger Mercantile Company, Fellner-Ratheim Dry Goods Company and the Fuess-Fisher Company have put patriotic displays in the show windows of their stores."

The town also sponsored Loyalty Day where "all stores would be closed from 2 to 5 o'clock on Thursday afternoon in order that all employees may take part in the big celebration."

It also was a half-holiday for schools so kids could participate in a parade and other celebrations.

In response to a plea from the president that extra effort be made this year to raise food, the St. Clair County school superintendent ruled that "after May 1, all boys 14 years old or over may be excused to work on farms."

The St. Clair Poultry and Pigeon Association urged people to raise more chickens for the war effort and the St. Clair County Club dedicated a half acre of ground for growing potatoes for the war effort. Members were to tend the plot full of spuds.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a series of occasional columns that will appear on Belleville's history in conjunction with the city's bicentennial celebration.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 618-239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com

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