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Davenport in WWI: City becomes 'premiere flashpoint'

Davenport in WWI: City becomes 'premiere flashpoint'

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A century ago, Davenport became Iowa's "premiere flashpoint" as the patriotism that accompanied World War I swept the country, stoking suspicion and animosity between German-Americans and other nationalities that shared the city.

Called the "most German" of cities in Iowa, Davenport had attracted 40,000 to Scott County over a 40-year period, beginning in the 1850s. The strength they brought from their homeland — the culture, work ethic and industriousness — almost instantly was brought into question when President Woodrow Wilson declared America's involvement in the war 100 years ago, in April 1917.

"You have all these good German-Americans in Davenport who have helped the community thrive and grow, and then you get U.S. entry into the war, the draft and the demonization of those same people," said Leo Landis, Iowa state curator, Des Moines, who termed Davenport the "premiere flashpoint" of anti-German sentiment in Iowa.

Iowans' uneasiness with their German neighbors was reflected in the Babel Proclamation, issued by Iowa Gov. William Harding in May 1918, prohibiting the speaking of German or other foreign languages in the state. No other state issued such a proclamation.

But anti-German incidents in Davenport had begun to escalate long before the governor's action.

Students protested and burned German-language books at Davenport High School. Long-established business and street names were changed if they sounded German. Even a park in the west end was renamed.

People and places considered suspect were targeted and labeled with yellow paint. German farmers who had worked Iowa's land for generations suddenly were regarded as unpatriotic.

Relations in Davenport were difficult for those who thought they had found a welcoming new homeland.

Division's impact

In an effort to offer a positive perspective to the city, a group of prominent German-Americans invited Daniel Wallace from the League of Humanity to speak at the sold-out Turner Hall in Davenport.

According to the book, "Anti-German Sentiment in Scott County," by Brenda Schaeffer Hansen, the invitation came after President Wilson declared the U.S. had joined the war. The president said America's enemy has "filled our unsuspecting communities and even offices of government with spies and criminal intrigue everywhere afoot at our national unity of counsel ..."

The Davenport speech by Wallace included negative remarks about Great Britain and its military, according to Hansen's book.

Police arrested Wallace at the Turner Hall, charging him with sedition. The four men who had arranged for him to speak also were arrested. Charged with conspiracy were attorneys Fred Vollmer, Earl Willis, Charles Wiese and a bookkeeper, A.J. Miller. Despite their not-guilty pleas, each was fined $2,000, according to an account in the Muscatine Journal.

Two others also were charged with conspiracy, including Dr. Henry Matthey, who later served as a surgeon with the German army.

There were bigger ways to crack down on those whose patriotism was in question.

In July 1918, authorities conducted a massive "slacker raid," according to The Gazette in Cedar Rapids. The front-page story, which originated out of Davenport, said the raid was conducted by government and state officials, aided by 50 soldiers from the Rock Island Arsenal.

The security force of about 500 rounded up an estimated 2,000 young men from the streets and out of factories in Davenport, along with "pool halls and places of amusement." They were transported to the Scott County Courthouse for questioning, which took all night.

By noon the next day, all but 16 had been released after proving they had registered for the draft. Only three of the 16 unregistered were from Davenport; the others, according to the story, "are transients and floaters who claim to have registered elsewhere."

Kory Darnall, a historian from Davenport, showed that hundreds of residents were investigated for allegedly making pro-German or anti-American statements to their neighbors. Internment of German-Americans, he wrote in his book, "Schuetzenpark — Davenport's Lost Playground," was hinted at and openly discussed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

During this time, some German-Americans dug in their heels. But some second- and third-generation Americans chose to dissociate with the German monarchy, said Glenn Ehrstine, a professor of German at the University of Iowa, who helped put together a traveling historic exhibit on World War I in Iowa.

German newspapers, so active before the war's onset, closed by 1918, including the successful Davenport daily, Der Demokrat.

Regular people felt the impact in many ways, too.

When Kathlyn Hofmann's grandmother, Flossie Struve, fell in love with Hans Baasch, she had to renounce her U.S citizenship. Hans Baasch had left Iowa to look for gold in California in 1911-12 and never got his American citizenship. He did sign a document stating he would be loyal to the U.S., not Germany, "but that didn't help him in 1918," said Hofmann, of DeWitt. The young couple had to wait until the war ended to be naturalized.

Businesses, streets and parks in Davenport were renamed. One of the most public examples was the German Savings Bank, founded in 1869 by German immigrants and located at the southwest corner of 3rd and Main streets. This bank, a predecessor to Wells Fargo Bank, was profitable and powerful with several mergers before 1917, but it was renamed the American Commercial Savings Bank in 1918.

The bank operation never recovered from the change. The ornate building was torn down in December 1926. It had been proudly constructed just 14 years earlier, with materials trucked to Davenport from Vermont.

No German, no beer, no park

When the former German Savings Bank was razed, the debris was transported to a popular park in the west end, Schuetzen Park, where pieces of the building remain to this day.

Schuetzen was a large recreation area that first was created as a target range for rifle marksmanship and a place to keep parts of the German culture alive. It had an inn, dance hall, zoo, bowling alley — even a roller coaster. As many as 12,000 people visited the park in a single day for major events.

Historian Darnall, president of the Schuetzen Park Gilde, said the park closed for a trio of reasons: Second- and third-generation German-Americans, far removed from the homeland, lost interest in it; Prohibition, which made the sale of beer impossible after 1919; and the Iowa governor's ban on speaking foreign languages in public.

For six years, 1917-23, Schuetzen Park changed its name to Forest Park and added the roller coaster, partly to help make up for the lost alcohol sales. But the amusement ride did not conform to modern safety standards, and people got hurt, Darnall said. Ultimately, there was not enough support, and the park closed in 1923.

The property was sold, and a chiropractic mental hospital moved in. In 1960, it again changed hands, becoming the Good Samaritan Center.

Today, the restored park area is located to the south of the center. On Sundays in the summer, a group of people gather to socialize and to speak in their native language. Visitors have included tourists from Austria, Switzerland and, of course, Germany.

'100 percent American'

Some of Davenport's most prominent residents stood up for German-Americans.

Charles August, or C.A., Ficke, an attorney and former mayor of the city, wrote in his book, "Memories of Fourscore Years," that he thought it would be wise to "cease calling foreign-born citizens German, Irish, Scandinavian or other foreign Americans. They are doing their utmost to help win this war and they deserve to be called simply Americans."

Ficke told of being asked by the city's chapter of the National Council of Defense to interview seven German-American farmers living near Walcott.

"I felt like a fool," Ficke wrote, "all seven had been born in this country ... some did not even speak German. All were 100 percent American."

Dean Ficke is a descendant of C.A. Ficke, and he volunteers at the German American Heritage Center & Museum. He said he mostly remembers his grandparents, on his mother's side, who farmed in northern Scott County and were worried about losing their horses to the U.S. Army. Fortunately, the animals were not called into duty.

While the Davenport School Board put an end to German language classes by May 1918, it was "quietly reintroduced" by 1925, said Jim Schebler of the Davenport School Museum.

Economic impact

The Rock Island Arsenal was a center of growth in the Quad-Cities during World War I.

Arsenal jobs grew from 1,400 in 1916 to 13,000 workers by 1918. The population of Davenport also was growing during those years — from 43,028 in 1910 to 56,727 in 1920.

George Eaton, Arsenal historian, said the Quad-Cities has a reputation for having a pool of skilled labor, but it was not enough.

"All kinds of people moved here for the jobs," he said, adding that the workforce shrunk back to about 650 after 1925.

Items produced on the island included "everything a soldier would need," Eaton said, "from tin cups to cannons."

The island's tin shop made plates and eating utensils. It had the largest leather shop in the United States, used for saddles, among other things. A huge clothing shop turned out backpacks, belts and whatever else the soldiers needed.

Arsenal workers made artillery ammunition and rifles, including the 1903 Springfield rifle. Meanwhile, about half of the buildings on the island were constructed during the war, Eaton said.

One problem was a lack of housing for new workers. The U.S. Housing Corp. was involved with construction and contracting for more places to live. The majority were in Rock Island and Moline. In Davenport, around 260 homes were built along Telegraph and Blackhawk roads and near Vander Veer Botanical Park.  

Also during World War I, the First Army was created. Its headquarters is at the Rock Island Arsenal, and a centennial event is being planned for next summer, Eaton said.

The first war was just 19 months long for the United States, so most of the heavy equipment manufactured at the Arsenal did not make it to France. American soldiers primarily used heavy equipment from France and Britain.

In other words, despite all the ramped-up manufacturing, it was too late for the heavy equipment made at the Arsenal to get to the front.

"Saddles, reins, ammunition, items for horses, that's about all that went there from here," Eaton said.

According to Landis, the Des Moines historian, Iowa farming and many other industries across the country experienced some of their most profitable years from 1910 to 1920.

In 1914, farm families faced economic challenges as the prices they received for livestock, crops and other production did not keep pace with what was charged the consumers. The war's beginning meant there was a new demand for farmer's produce, and their prosperity returned.

With the end of the war in November 1918, there was no federal economic plan to stabilize farm prices. As a result, rural Iowans faced economic hardships sooner than urban Iowans, Landis said.

In manufacturing, the Bettendorf Company took on greater production to meet war needs, and a 1919 report shows that 3,000 box cars were produced there for the U.S. government.

"Of course, it is not until after the Great Depression and World War II that Bettendorf really grows," Landis said.

World War I ended in the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.

Army Lt. V.E. Hodges shared his account of the Armistice, "November 11 at the Front," with the Davenport Democrat newspaper: "The battlefield, which a minute earlier was an inferno, was now quiet. Up from the stillness, as far as one could hear, rose the sweet strains of the Star Spangled Banner, coming from the throats of thousands of Americans. Men lost control ... Colonels, majors, captains and lieutenants returned to headquarters, sat down and cried.

"We saw 'Old Glory' wave on a distant hill ... Oh, how much that meant to us!"


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