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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010 04:42 am

Thanksgiving in Springfield, 100 years ago

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In this circa 1910 photo, construction workers enjoy a meal inside the Leland Hotel, which was being rebuilt after a fire.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SANGAMON VALLEY COLLECTION IN THE LINCOLN LIBRARY

If we could go back 100 years to Thanksgiving in 1910, we might be surprised at the similarities and differences.

As usual, the president gave a Thanksgiving proclamation. President William H. Taft expressed gratitude that America continued “to be at peace with the rest of the world.” The U.S. had never known a World War at that point. “In all essential matters our relations with other peoples are harmonious…” Taft wrote.

Conditions were far from harmonious in the Prairie State. It was reeling from recently uncovered corruption in state government. Back then the Illinois General Assembly, not the citizens, elected the state’s U.S. senators. In 1909 the legislature couldn’t agree on a candidate even after 94 tries. Months later, state lawmakers chose Chicago Congressman William Lorimer, who had a long reputation of wheeling and dealing.

Soon after, investigations revealed that Lorimer bought his Senate seat with bribes. Surely Thanksgiving tables were buzzing with talk about the scandal and its aftereffects. On Thanksgiving Day the Illinois State Register in Springfield called the affair an “infamous outrage against…the state of Illinois” and pushed for reforms so citizens, not legislators, could directly elect their U.S. senators.

Worse yet, shortly before Thanksgiving Illinoisans had re-elected some of the legislators involved in the scandal. That led the Register, again on Thanksgiving, to call for an end to the current method of electing state legislators, which it felt was partly to blame. (That method, formally known as “cumulative voting” and informally known as “plumping,” was not dropped until 1980 after a campaign led by a young reformer named Pat Quinn.)

Locally, Springfield had much to be grateful for, said the Register’s Thanksgiving editorial. “The 1910 government census figures show Springfield’s population to be 51, 678, with a 51 percent increase in the past decade, which is equaled by very few cities in the United States.”

There was a new “Lincoln Library,” “new factories” and a “constantly increasing number of new buildings” in the city “from the small home to the magnificent nine-story new Leland Hotel,” the paper said. (The Leland was being rebuilt after a fire. Its developer, Col. J. S. Culver, was pushing construction workers to enclose the unfinished building before winter and gave them a scrumptious Thanksgiving Day dinner to thank them for working the holiday, the Register reported.)

The Register also touted Springfield’s park systems (its ruling corrupt “machine” had been recently ousted, the paper added), along with its school system and city administration, “which has overthrown public gambling, wine rooms and many other vices.”

Overall, we were the “Greater and Better Springfield!” it proclaimed. There was no mention of the race riot that just two years earlier left several dead and a national stain on the city’s reputation, nor mention of any efforts to address problems that caused it.

On the home front, Thanksgiving cooks had their work cut out. Stores like Whalen Brothers at 708 East Adams had everything needed for the holiday meal, according to its Nov. 23, 1910, ad in the Register: “turkeys, geese, ducks, chickens, rabbits, oysters, grapes, and all other good things.” Dressed turkeys were going for 28 cents a pound. Whalen’s was selling 21 pounds of sugar for a dollar and Dewar’s Scotch whisky for $1.50 a bottle. George S. Connelly Company, at 417-423 East Monroe, was selling cranberries and mince meat while Maldaner’s downtown on Sixth Street offered their “English Plum Puddings” for 35 cents or dark fruit cake for 40 cents a pound.

But if nobody wanted to cook, they could eat a full Thanksgiving meal at the Heidelberg Café at 417-419 East Jefferson.

Newman’s ladies shop on the west side of the square was pushing fur coats, sweaters and corsets for the holidays. Fur coats were going for $30 to $75 while corsets were priced from $1 to $12.50.

If the family got bored after their Thanksgiving meal, they could attend the much hyped football game that afternoon between Springfield High and Beardstown. (Springfield creamed Beardstown 29 to zip, but the game nearly broke out in a “free for all” when a fan criticized a Beardstown official, the Register reported later.)

If the family didn’t like football, there were matinee and evening shows at the Chatterton (at the southeast corner of Sixth and Jefferson) and Majestic theaters (at 415 South Fifth Street).

Another option was to attend church and there were plenty of Thanksgiving services to choose from. At the Central Baptist Church downtown, the First M. E. Church pastor, Rev. Dr. A. C. Piersel, said Springfieldians “ought to be tenfold thankful that in the midst of our thoughtlessness the Lord God has not cast us off and out forever.” As evidence of the city’s thoughtlessness he cited saloons being open on Sundays and theaters presenting “immoral and suggestive” plays.

So much for going to see a show that night.

Contact Tara McAndrew at tmcand22@aol.com.

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