World War I profoundly changed Rockford
(This is the second of two posts about the changes Rockford experienced when the United States entered World War I a century ago. The first post told of federal prosecution of local opponents of military conscription, among other matters.)
Prior to April of 1917, the United States in general and Rockford in particular were content to thrive on the industrial boom spawned by the European conflict, but there was no groundswell for American military involvement. In fact, the nation re-elected Woodrow Wilson as president in 1916 on his promise to stay out of the war.
That pledge mostly was forgotten, however, once Congress declared war. And on the next day, Rockford exploded in a frenzy of martial fever.
“This is Rockford’s loyalty day,” the Register-Gazette declared in a late edition. “Thousands of sons and daughters of the Forest City of Illinois paraded the streets this afternoon in a patriotic demonstration of a magnitude not seen here on any other occasion since the Civil War.”
But there was dissent as well. The war was especially unpopular among Socialists in the Swedish community, thousands of whom held a peace rally that summer in Blackhawk Park.
With the advent of war, “Rockford’s atmosphere changed overnight from quiet neighborliness to regimented militancy,” according to a local history published years later by the Federal Writers Project. “The old tolerance of opposition to the war began swiftly to evaporate.”
Some of this prejudice was just silly — local restaurants called German fries “liberty fries” and sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” — but some of it was ugly. As the history by the Writers Project reported: “Soon the study of the German language was to be banned in the public schools, the name of Berlin Avenue was to be changed to Rockford Avenue, and to speak with a Teutonic accent was to arouse popular suspicion.”
Vigilante groups sprang up to enforce patriotism.
The American Protective League had 250,000 “agents,” including some in Rockford, who closely monitored the activities of their neighbors and intimidated critics of the war. Some German-Americans lost their jobs in war industries for fear of sabotage.
Germans made up a significant segment of the Rockford-area population, but unlike the Swedes and Italians, they never immigrated in large numbers in a short period of time or settled as a group in any one neighborhood. These factors, no doubt, contributed to their troubles during the war.
Another factor was that Rockford suddenly became a military town, which only heightened the war fever. Shortly after the declaration of war, the federal government designated a stretch of farmland south of Rockford at the confluence of the Rock and Kishwaukee rivers for establishment of an Army training center called Camp Grant, in honor of the late President Ulysses S. Grant. It transformed the community, swelling the population, pumping tens of millions of dollars into the local economy — and setting the stage for a huge catastrophe.
The building of Camp Grant “was something of a miracle,” as one local historian put it. In just five months, more than 1,500 buildings were constructed on 2,200 acres. The job required 48 million board feet of lumber, 300 miles of wiring, 30 miles of water pipe, 170 carloads of plumbing equipment, 1,000 tons of nails and 150 acres of roofing.
The demand for carpenters, painters, steam fitters, metal workers, plumbers, electricians and other skilled workers brought job-seekers and their families by the thousands. By late summer 1917, 8,000 civilians were employed in building the camp.
“Business boomed mightily,” according to the Writers Project. “New stores and restaurants sprang up overnight. Hotels and lodging houses overflowed…Families rented spare rooms to the newcomers…At all hours of the day and night, taxicabs, now 500, flashed madly through the streets…Theaters were crowded nightly. Restaurants had queues extending onto the sidewalks, while the weekend crowds, numbering between 30 and 40 thousand, literally ate the restaurants bare.”
Meanwhile, to conserve resources, the civilian populace endured periodic “meatless days,” “heatless days” and lightless nights.” Electric streetcar service was curtailed to save power, and sales of sugar, flour and meat were regulated.
At Camp Grant, hundreds of thousands of military personnel — more than a million in all over the course of the war — passed through for training. There were 12 miles of trenches to simulate conditions on the European front, a mile-long parade ground, a huge rifle range, a hospital with space for 1,500 patients and barracks for 50,000 men.
Before it was over, the war spawned a subsidiary tragedy, and the toll in Rockford, as elsewhere, was terrible.
Soldiers and sailors returning to the United States from Europe brought with them the Spanish flu, so-called for its nation of origin. In early September of 1918, the bug spread westward from Boston. Within weeks, an epidemic exploded at Camp Grant, where thousands of men were confined in close quarters. Four thousand fell ill in two days, then thousands more.
Inevitably, the plague struck the civilian community, and death was everywhere.
Schools, churches, theaters and many businesses were closed. People on the street wore face masks. Emergency hospitals were established in the Rockford Boys Club, Lincoln School and the Knights of Columbus club. A downtown garage was turned into a morgue. Flag-draped coffins stood in huge stacks at railroad stations. Grieving families of dead soldiers poured into town to claim their loved ones.
By Oct. 3, the combined death toll for Camp Grant stood at 63. It climbed to 234 in the next two days. On Oct. 10 alone, 218 soldiers and civilians died. When the epidemic ended a few weeks later, as suddenly as it had started, fatalities numbered 323 in Rockford, nearly 100 more in the rest of Winnebago County, and more than 1,400 at Camp Grant.
Worldwide, the outbreak killed 21 million people, more than perished in the war. The final American death toll was 548,000. It was by far the worst epidemic in the nation’s — and Rockford’s — history.
The city’s great emotional outburst on Armistic Day, Nov. 11, 1918, stemmed as much from the passing of the flu epidemic as from the end of the war.