Chapter 1: Citadels of Glory
For nearly two centuries the French and the British wrangled over the greater part of that broad land which has since become known to fame as the American Middle West. During that time the earlier bronze-skinned lords of this realm took it on the chin with monotonous regularity, receiving the brunt of defeat when they sided with the vanquished, or, when they had allied themselves with the victors, soon being turned upon and ferociously trounced by their late comrades in arms. Eventually the French and British were ousted from control of the land, and it came into the possession of a new Nation – a Nation which first exercised those rights by relieving the red-skins of their lands, chattels and lives, in order that the white man, with his superior civilization of lead bullets, hard liquor and enlightened trading practices, might hold undisputed sway.
There then appeared, in increasing swarms, the Scotch-Irish, the Virginians, the New England Puritans, the Germans from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and ultimately the swarthy hordes from southern Europe. The fusing of these many and varied elements has been characterized by no little upheaval and tumult. Nor is it completed as yet. In fact, most of the more entertaining manifestations of Middle-Western life of today arise principally from the conflict between the widely divergent philosophies of these various strains.
For several generations agrarian pursuits predominated throughout the Middle West. But all the time there were springing up along the banks of its rivers and at the crossings of its highroads the hamlets and villages which were one day to constitute its chief distinction in the eyes of the world.
The mere physical growth of these municipalities has been astounding. In the majority of them, there are living, today, bewhiskered ancients, still active for their years, who remember well when hogs wallowed in the middle of Main Street, wooden awnings covered the downtown sidewalks, and a five-minute walk in any direction from the Public Square brought one to open and fertile fields. Many of these towns have watched themselves mushroom beyond all recognition within less than a generation; many of them have seen their wealth doubled, tripled and quadrupled in a decade or so.
The material and spiritual contributions made by these cities towards the advancement of the world have been of inestimable importance. Among them are the flivver, the hot dog, the realtor, the Rotary Club, the business man’s lunch, the philosophic pronouncements of Henry Ford, the glorified public school, the filling station, and Prohibition.
And the booster – greatest, if last, because it is he who has brought the virtues of Middle-Western cities to the knowledge of a breathless world; who has shouted from the housetops that his home town is the largest in the state, or at least in the country, that it has the widest streets, the handsomest courthouse, the finest stores, the largest factories, the most splendid churches and the most beautiful parks; who has pointed out, above all, that his native city is possessed of the most progressive, patriotic, moral and intelligent citizens to be found anywhere.
It is proposed to examine, in the pages which follow, a few of the characteristic aspects of present-day life in one of these citadels of glory, and to show how the city has risen to the eminence which it now adorns.
It is a real city. Yet rather than one city it is many cities, indeed, almost any Middle-Western city. Since it is typical of its sister cities, it will be referred to herein, not by the name which appears on its distinguished charter, but rather by a fanciful name which it has taken unto itself, and which in some measure expresses its high spirit and a proper realization of its own virtues.
Patient research has failed to reveal the circumstances under which this fanciful appellation was first employed. Most probably it was conceived during the course of an early booster banquet. One can easily picture the affair in the grand banquet hall of the Palace Hotel, attended by all the local worthies and enlivened by a generous consumption of those beverages which have since been declared unholy. One almost feels as if he were now present at that exalted moment when the town’s most fervent orator arose and proposed a florid and well received toast, which concluded, after some minutes of rhetoric with these words . . . : Gentlemen, I give you our fair city, our blessed home town, the best little place on earth – the Gem City of the world.”
The eminent fitness of this romantic name must have been apparent instantly to one and all. At any rate, it was immediately adopted and has since been not only extensively used in booster literature and verbal bouquets but adopted by numerous commercial concerns. The telephone directory lists thirty-six such firms, beginning with the Gem City Art Memorial Company and proceeding through a varied array which includes manufactures of bedding, furnaces, ice cream, pretzels, potato chips, sheet music and window shades.
Undoubtedly the manufacture and widespread distribution of these vitally utilitarian products have served to spread the city’s fame to distant quarters of the globe, have added measurably to its wealth, and have assisted in its rapid growth.
Growth itself lately reached a most important milestone when the city fathers annexed enough outlying territory to hoist the city’s population to approximately two hundred thousand. Needless to say, the local boosters saw to it that the Government census plans were altered to include the new territory, and thus broadcast to the world, with official sanction, this new and imposing total.
It is thus a community of considerable size. The boosters state, with enthusiasm and frequency, that it is sufficiently large to offer all the advantages of metropolitan life without any of the inconveniences incident to residence in more populous centers. It has not, one is told, acquired any of the lamentable vices peculiar to those vast and sprawling cities which measure their populations in millions; nor has it outgrown a single one of those sturdy virtues which mark the smallest American hamlet as the peer of any world capital. In short, it affords to its citizens, in the full flower, all of those priceless blessings which are everywhere held to be the soundest assets of the Land of the Free, and the envy of the world at large.
The possession of these sterling qualities naturally inspires in the bosoms of citizens a bounteous measure of pride – a consciousness of civic destiny; a firm belief that other cities and their citizens may well cast their eyes upward along the path of municipal progress toward that high peak from which shines forth the radiant effulgence of this city’s achievement.
It is a spirit which frequently exudes over the national and international landscapes through the new pages of the public prints, through the published writings of the town’s distinguished citizens, and through the informal utterances of those who travel abroad by land or sea. But there are local manifestations too. Throughout the chapters which follow, this opulent civic pride will be seen to crop out ever and anon, giving power and volume to the proclamations of the boosters, adding luster to the achievements of the citizenry, permeating all the aspects of community life. It will be found expressing itself in all civic undertakings, in the operation of factories, banks, stores and similar business institutions; in churches, schools, clubs, lodges and homes; in charity, benevolence, and cultural uplift through patronage of the arts.
Some of these manifestations of glory in the city’s life of today will be examined in more or less detail, beginning with a brief consideration of a few of the significant events which have decorated more than a century of history.