One hundred years ago, the turn of the new year brought great excitement to the citizens of the Quad-Cities. The occasion was a visit from General John J. Pershing, commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Forces and hero of the Great War. At 9:15AM on the morning of January 6th, 1920, he stepped from his railroad car onto the station platform at 5th and Main Streets in Davenport and into a full day of activities, mostly speech-making and glad-handing in addition his official inspection of the Rock Island Arsenal.
As soon as the October 28th telegram announcing Pershing was planning a tour of the war industries in the midwest, the mayors of Rock Island and Davenport each leapt at the chance to host the General during his visit. Harry Schriver of Rock Island was miffed that Lee Dougherty’s telegram arrived before his own letter of invitation, but Pershing himself quickly put an end to the competition between the cities by requesting that all four in the region work together to receive him.
Planning for the joint reception began in earnest as Pershing confirmed his visit would take place after the first of January. The committee included Schriver, Dougherty, Mayor C.P. Skinner of Moline, as well as representatives from the Davenport Commercial Club, the Greater Davenport Committee, the Rock Island Club, the Rock Island Chamber of Commerce, and the City of East Moline.
By all accounts, Pershing’s visit was an unqualified success. Enthusiasm was high: police had to keep the block-deep throng from crowding the train platform as the General posed for photographs with the reception committee, greeted the 20 men in the American Legion attachment, and listened to the celebrated Ottumwa military band play the “General Pershing March.”
Davenport schools were closed until 10:00am so children could join the thousands of people on the flag-lined streets cheering on the Pershing procession. Boys “…clung to [the automobile’s] sides, climbed upon the guards, and ran along beside the machine…”, slowing it down, but the General delighted in their liveliness. B.J. Palmer had one of his students block the car in the middle of Brady Street so the doctor could jump on the running board and shake the commander’s hand. Rain and cold deterred none, including Pershing: “If these good people can stand out in the weather,” he said, “I can ride in an open car…” He stopped on Pershing Avenue to salute and thank the people of Davenport for naming the former Rock Island Street in his honor.
After his first inspection of the Arsenal, including a 17-gun salute, General Pershing’s automobile tour continued down 5th Street in Moline and 7th Street in Rock Island to the thousands of Illinois-side “hurrah’s” on the way to Augustana College. The speech he delivered to 2000 people in the gymnasium praised the local spirit during the war: “No section of this country has shown greater patriotism and loyalty than these cities. None have gone over the top in the Liberty Loan drives, the Red Cross drives, and other war work activities with greater enthusiasm than you.” He shook hands with everyone in the audience, paying special attention to war veterans and youngsters, before heading to a 1:00PM luncheon hosted by the area Rotary Clubs at the Masonic Temple in Rock Island. There he fended off questions about a run for president and enjoyed the company of his fellow Rotarians.
General Pershing’s afternoon visit to the Arsenal included speeches warning against the danger of “anarchy” and the “red flag of revolution,” as well as praise for the patriotism of the workers and former military men now employed there. The tour of inspection complete, Pershing took refreshment at an afternoon tea hosted by the wife of Arsenal commander Col. Harry B. Jordan.
The evening’s highlight was an address delivered by Pershing at the banquet hall at the Hotel Blackhawk. In order to improve the nation’s military preparedness, he promoted a training program for young men as an “extension of education,” to include instruction in the English language for “foreigners.” He echoed toastmaster Joe Lane’s introductory speech decrying “those red demons, Bolshevism and Communism” by urging the people of the United States to “…not sit idly by and permit the growth of these dangerous ideas.” Despite the seriousness of the speakers’ words, the occasion itself was a merry one: The crowds pushing into the lobby and onto the balconies cheered as the Ottumwa military band struck up the popular tune “Johnny’s In Town” upon Pershing’s entrance.
Later, Harry F. Evans, post commander of the Davenport American Legion*, welcomed Pershing to the Coliseum, where more than 2500 ex-servicemen from posts around the region greeted him with an impromptu salute. His speech was short, again emphasizing preparedness in the light of the “unrest that is sweeping over the land,” but the General took the time to shake every man’s hand — and also every woman’s. Apparently he had remarked upon the beauty of the local ladies at numerous times during the day.
Departing the Davenport station at 10:00PM that night, General Pershing was released from his long day as a “prisoner of gratitude” as Mayor Dougherty had put it. And the people of the Quad-Cities had not lost their enthusiasm for celebrating “Pershing Day:” another large crowd had gathered on the platform to bid the beloved leader farewell.
(posted by Katie)
Compiled from the January 6 and 7, 1920 issues of the Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa), the Davenport Democrat and Leader, and the Rock Island Argus (Rock Island, Illinois).
*The members of American Legion Post #26, Davenport, Iowa, organized the Scott County World War I Bonus Applications that are now in the RSSC Center’s collections (Acc.# 2012-25, Don Southwood Collection). The Center also holds the records of the Post #26 Women’s Auxiliary (Acc.# 2004-07). Other WWI records we have include the Scott County Army Enlistment and Discharge Papers and the World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 for Iowa on microfilm.