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Dayton's Greatest Labor Day

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, September 2, 1934


By Howard Burba


As it is observed in Dayton today, Labor Day is just another holiday. The long weeks of preparation for it, the feverish work of outlining a parade formation in which thousands would participate, the spectacular parade itself with a half-dozen or more bands and every organized craft stepping high, wide and handsome to the tune of “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” or “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” – all have faded from the picture.

Labor Day at present means little more locally than just another day to dress in one’s Sunday best and attend horse races at the fair ground, auto races at some convenient speedway, or to mix in with a family fishing or luncheon party out along the river. The shops shut down and the stores close and the banks cease doing business. But instead of the town being filled and running over with visitors and brewery wagons being the most prominent vehicles on the street, Dayton is a graveyard on Labor Day.

It was not always so. There was a day when its observance was marked by flash and color approached only by the old-time circus parade, and when it could rightfully lay claim to being the most hectic holiday of the entire year. Just who or what is to blame for the change, it is not for me to say. It would be a matter of speculation, anyhow. The nearest guess would be that organized labor doesn’t really take itself, or its movement, as seriously now as it did in the days of Sam Gompers and ‘Gene Debs and other disciples of unionism. Instead of getting into a clean pair of overalls and joining a parade, the average union man now considers it far more interesting to don his Sunday suit and climb into the family flivver for a mad dash to some site that offers greater thrills.

It was during and around the close of the gay ‘nineties that Labor Day was in reality a red-letter day on Dayton’s calendar. Take the year 1900, or instance. The celebration of Labor Day in that year was typical of its observance in scores of other American cities, and also demonstrated what such an observance was like when every organized worker put his heart into it, and helped make it more than “just another holiday.”

“Expectations were realized in every way in the celebration of Labor Day in Dayton,” reads the opening sentence in the news story of how the event was observed here in 1900, just 34 years ago tomorrow. The local reporter had his heart in his job, even though he had to work when other workers loafed, as is evidenced in these paragraphs from an old newspaper file:

“It was the greatest and grandest Labor Day in the history of its local observance. This can be said without straining a point. In every way it was a signal success. It was participated in by greater numbers than ever before.

“Starting with a monster parade, the thirteen thousand organized laboring men and members of their families enjoyed a day that will long be remembered. Under skies which were not promising, with a discouraging drizzle as a starter, and beneath constant threats from the weather gods, the laborers took up the day’s observance and carried out the thoroughly laid plans.

“Dayton people did not before realize what a large and intelligent portion of their number is listed in organized labor. It was a revelation to many to see the thousands of fine-looking, intelligent men and women in striking uniforms adapted for the occasion march over the principal uptown streets and thence to the fairgrounds, where a most remarkable demonstration was held. A pronounced and noticeable feature was the quiet, systematic and orderly manner in which everything was conducted.

“The parade was a triumph for union labor, with 4000 organized working men and women in line. Led by Grand Marshal E. J. Leo and his aides, officers of the Central Labor union, every craft and trade was represented in the marching column.

“Along the line of march there were cheers and applause for those in the parade. Each marcher seemingly had his friends, who gave encouragement and expression of favor in unmistakable terms. A cosmopolitan audience, composed of many nationalities, joined in the picnic and outing, which started when the marchers reached the fairgrounds.”

We are assured that never before was a line of march more profuse with flags and bunting than on Labor Day 34 years ago. “Windows in uptown buildings presented an interesting sight,” says the old news report, “with hundreds of people seeking positions of advantage from which to view the parade. It was unquestionably the biggest, best and finest parade Dayton has ever held on Labor Day. At 8 a.m. it was drizzling, but this did not dampen the ardor of the unionists who took their places promptly and formed for the march. In uniforms as varied and numerous as the crafts represented, the men presented an attractive appearance. From the standpoint of costumes the parade was a splendid success. All colors were harmonized in the marching column. The parasols, intended solely for ornament, suddenly became useful, and in only one instance, that of the red umbrellas, did the color not prove ‘fast.’ In some cases the red dropping from them made varied-colored streaks on the blouses and trousers.

“The women and girl cigarmakers were gowned in immaculate white, and with a May pole and ribbons attached they easily captured the hearts of the spectators. The barbers, too, wore all white, and they were roundly cheered. It would be useless, to say nothing of an impossibility, to give individual praise to the many unions deserving of it. The sight on Main st., after the countermarch was one not soon to be forgotten. As far as the eye could reach there were marchers and the enlivening music of the several bands which headed each division offered opportunity for the great display of enthusiasm.”

An idea of how completely local crafts were organized 34 years ago, and one that will furnish some interesting comparisons for those who are acquainted with the general makeup of the union forces in the city today, is afforded by the parade formation, carried in the old newspaper of 1900.

Heading the line, and at that time the strongest organized body of working men in Dayton, were the two Iron Molders’ unions, No. 45 and No. 161. Then came these unions in the first division: Coremakers, Boilermakers, Brotherhood Railroad Trainmen, Patternmakers, Freight Handlers, Foundry Laborers and Boilermakers Helpers. It should be understood that each of these crafts represented a union within itself.

In the second division, headed by the N. C. R. band, came the Typographical union, Cigarmakers, Printing Pressmen, Printing Pressmen’s Assistants, the Federal union, Laundry Workers, Shippers and Packers and the Truckmen’s union.

The third division was made up of the Columbia brass band and these unions in gay costumes: Metal Polishers, Machinists, Journeymen Horseshoers’ union, Brass Molders, Blacksmiths No. 133, Platers, Helpers and Metal Scrubbers, Blacksmith Helpers, Journeymen Tailors No. 202, Garment Workers.

The Buckeye State band headed division four, and these unions marched to its martial music: Screwmakers, Assemblers and Adjusters, Pressmen and Machine Hands, Inspectors  and Gaugers, Bicycle Workers and Repair Men, Strappers and Grinders.

In the sixth division, headed by the old Daytonia Band, came these unions: Barbers, Retail Clerks, Broom Makers, Wood Carvers, Wheel Makers, Hardwood Rubbers and Finishers, Almagamated Woodworkers, Boxmakers, Bartenders, Stage Employes, Grocery and Provision Clerks and Freight Car Builders.

Sibley’s Brass band led the sixth division of the long parade of over 4000 unionists, and these unions followed: Brewery Workers union, Soapworkers, Teamsters, Almagamated Street Railway Workers, Bakers and Confectioners No. 51, Furniture Makers, Brewery Drivers and Helpers, Ice Wagon Drivers and Helpers, Hostlers union, Bootblacks union.

But that wasn’t the end of the line, nor the sum total of crafts that marched under the banner of the A. F. of L. back in “the good old days.” There was still another division, the seventh, and in it were lined up behind the Germania band the building trades unions, consisting of the Stonecutters union, Carpenters unions No. 104 and No. 346, Plumbers, Electrical Workers, Lathers, Plasterers, Sheet Metal Workers, Painters and Decorators, Mosaic Tile Layers and the Plaster Hodcarriers.

When the last of the marchers had reached the fairgrounds the assemblage present for the afternoon program was estimated at between 12,000 and 14,000 people. The population of Dayton in 1900 was 85,533, so one readily understands that it was entitled to be classed as “an immense crowd,” as the old newspaper of that day described it.

“Watching the races on the track,” said the reporter, “the people thronged the hillsides to the north, filled the grandstand and overflowed along the fences to the south. It was a great but orderly crowd. A detachment of police in charge of Sergt. Ed. Fair was on the grounds, but their duty consisted only of keeping in check the enthusiastic crowds. There was no trouble and in this fact there is reflected the strongest tribute to the intelligence of the laboring men and their families and friends.

“Although the weather was damp and threatening the huge crowd had plenty of amusement. There was music by a band and songs by a choir of united singers throughout the afternoon. The races were given without interruption, except as were caused by frequent showers. The track was in anything but a satisfactory condition, but with affable and efficient officials in charge, everything passed off smoothly.”

And what races they must have been, judging from the way the newspaper men enthused over them! The program started off with a bicycle race over a distance of one-fourth of a mile. Otto Wovaries of Dayton finished first, George Walther of Hamilton second and E. Swartzel of Dayton third. In the mile bike race which followed Wovaries was again first, Swartzel second and C. J. Wagner third. A boys’ bike race created far more interest, however, being won by Harry Cozad and Walter Stockman, both of Dayton, with L. Parker of Springfield finishing third.

In the two-mile handicap bicycle race Joseph Rosenberger finished first, Frank Lesher second and F. J. Alsup third. The two miles were covered by the winner in four minutes and 28 seconds.

M. A. Banes’ horse won the half-mile horse race, taking the first two heats. Willie Hearst, an 11-year old boy, gave a half-mile bicycle exhibition in 1:15. A prize of three cases of wine for the fastest exhibition, paced by two tandems, went to the star bicyclists of the day, George Walther and Ed Swartzel. The mile was covered in 2 minutes 6 seconds.

“The prizes in the various events were very attractive and valuable,” asserts the old newspaper file, “Dayton merchants and manufacturers having made a most commendable display of liberality and sympathy with the case of labor in the number and value of the prizes offered.”

There you have the story of the greatest Labor Day celebration in Dayton history. There had been many of them before that time and there have been many such celebrations since, but the peak of Labor Day observance was reached on that first Monday in September 34 years ago. Union labor was in the heyday of its glory. Even the bootblack who shined your shoes – and was satisfied with five cents for doing so – carried a union card and was an active and officiating member of the great American Federation of Labor.

And then slowly but surely Labor Day celebrations in Dayton began to lose their luster until, within recent years, they have become, insofar as color and general observance is concerned, “just another holiday.” First came the disintegration of the great Barney & Smith car shops and their several allied industrial plants. Later came the historic and still remembered clash between the N. C. R. and the various unions represented beneath the roofs of its enormous buildings, with the ultimate adoption of the “open shop” policy by its founder and, at that time, exceedingly active head.

Machines came along to replace the girls in the cigar factories; still later prohibition stepped in to sideswipe the allied unions affiliated with the brewing and distilling industries. And so it went – and so went the enthusiasm necessary to stage such a street parade and public demonstration as that which marked Labor Day 34 years ago tomorrow – the greatest Labor Day in the history of Dayton.