One hundred years ago, Labor Day in Columbus was a holiday like few others in the recent history of the city.
With the country more strongly united than it had been for years as World War I raged on, the people of Columbus turned out in great numbers to remember and pay tribute to the labors of the "common people."
Labor Day as a holiday was fairly new then, having been recognized as a federal holiday in 1894. Prior to that time, the disagreements between organized labor and corporate management often resulted in confrontation -- and they would once again in years to come.
But for now, labor and management were united. Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor joined with President Woodrow Wilson in declaring the importance of a united effort to defeat America's enemies in what was arguably the greatest struggle the country had seen since the end of the Civil War.
The country had been at war since April 1917, and hundreds of thousands of young men had been called into service. It was only in summer 1918 that American ground troops had begun to see combat at places with names such as "Cantigny" and "Belleau Wood." In early September, the American Expeditionary Force, under the command of Gen. John J. Pershing, was preparing for its first major battle in what would come to be called the St. Mihiel Offensive in mid- to late September. It would be a deadly contest but a victorious one.
In Columbus, as in much of the country, Labor Day on Sept. 2, 1918, was remembered as the birthday of the Marquis de Lafayette, who had fought for the United States in the American Revolution. Pershing remarked on his arrival in France, "Lafayette, we are here." Labor Day also marked the initiation of the nationwide playing of taps each day at 4:30 p.m. to remember the dead, wounded and missing in what had become known as the Great War.
But for all of the solemnity and dignity associated with the day, Labor Day in Columbus also was a day to celebrate.
The day began with the Labor Day parade. In 1918, it was the largest the city had seen in many years. More than 10,000 people marched in the parade, which was organized in nine divisions, with a brass band leading each division.
Incorporating members of many of the trade unions of the city, the parade began at Mound and High streets, marched north to what is now Nationwide Boulevard, then turned back to Mound Street. People involved in different lines of work, from firefighters to carpenters, wore the clothing and carried the tools associated with their occupations. All along the way, the marchers were cheered on by hundreds of family members, friends and well-wishers.
When the marchers had returned to Mound Street, they joined with acquaintances and walked east to take streetcars to the end of the Parsons Avenue line, then walked to a picnic site called the Heimanndale Grove. The day's activities there included races and games for children and adults combined with facilities for family and union group picnics. A popular local group called Borchers Band had provided the music for the first division of the parade and continued to perform at Heimanndale Grove. For people not inclined to picnicking, there were more than enough other activities.
By 1918, Labor Day was a recognized holiday at the state and local level, and many people took the day off to enjoy themselves. Theaters and restaurants did lively business. So, too, did the saloons. Local Prohibition advocates had lobbied hard for the Ohio General Assembly to close saloons on holidays. The legislature complied and passed a law closing most saloons on most holidays.
Most, but not all.
As it turned out, the law permitted saloons to stay open on Labor Day -- to the delight of some and the consternation of others.
The movement to prohibit the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages was about to succeed, and the Prohibition era was less than two years away -- but it was not here quite yet.
Then there were the races. On Labor Day, there were a series of races at Driving Park. The park, on the near east side of the city, had been home to horse races of one sort or another since 1874.
In recent years, there had been fewer horse races and more races of other sorts. Automobile races drew such local racers as Eddie Rickenbacker and such national celebrities as Barney Oldfield. In 1910, Oldfield drove a multicylinder car of his own manufacture against Lincoln Beachey in an airplane of Beachey's design. Oldfield won.
For most of the people of Columbus, Labor Day was a day of unity and celebration.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.