As It Were Labor: Day in 1920 meant big parade
As the sun came up on the first Monday in September 1920, it was only a warm glow in a dense layer of fog that blanketed the city of Columbus.
Undeterred by the fog, large numbers of people began to come downtown anyway. This was Labor Day, and organized labor and its friends were determined to celebrate.
And they did just that.
In some ways, it was a different time. In an era when the movies still were silent and TV, radio and the internet did not exist, people enjoyed themselves by gathering at the theater, in restaurants and at parties at home. This also was a time when people enjoyed parades -- marching in them or watching along the sidewalks of Columbus.
The Labor Day parade had become one of the largest and most impressive of these parades.
Columbus in 1920 was a conservative town and had been one for many years. Ohio's capital city was not unusual in that regard. Many capital cities were rather traditional.
Columbus was a bit different because it was also a major Midwestern center of transportation, trade and industry. It was not alone. Places like Indianapolis, Atlanta and Denver also were large cities.
Columbus owed its success to its central location. In the years after the American Civil War, Columbus became a major manufacturing center of steel, stone and timber products.
It also made things people needed and used like shoes, glassware and buggies. Columbus made a lot of buggies. The Columbus Buggy Co. was one of the largest buggy makers in the world. In 1900, there were 22 buggy companies in Columbus.
By 1920, the age of the buggy was ending. Columbus Buggy and other companies had tried to make the transition to motor cars. Before becoming a World War I flying ace, Eddie Rickenbacker of Columbus had gotten his start as a test driver and racer of automobiles. By 1920, he had moved on, and so had auto production.
But even without the cars, Columbus still was booming in the years after the Great War.
The population of Columbus almost had doubled since 1900 to 237,000. And many of those people were members or supporters of organized labor.
In 1886, the American Federation of Labor was founded in Columbus. And in 1890, the United Mine Workers of America was founded in Columbus, as well. It should be noted that Columbus was chosen as the place for all of this not because it was a hotbed of labor agitation but because it was an easy place to visit because of all those railroads.
On Labor Day in 1920, 15,000 members of local unions gathered in nine divisions near the intersection of Mound and High streets. Eleven marching bands accompanied the marchers -- at the head of the parade and between each of the divisions along the way.
Large numbers of people lined High Street to watch as the parade began at 9 a.m. Moving north, the parade marched up High Street to Goodale Avenue. Turning at that street, the parade countermarched back down High Street to Mound Street where it began.
Leading the parade in a motor car with local officials was Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor. Gompers had come to Columbus over the weekend and had spent Sunday evening at a dinner sponsored by the United Woolen Workers. At the dinner, he had said, "Now is not the time to produce autocracy in industry. The men and women who toil are deserving of a new deal and new recognition."
More than a few people were listening to the words of the largest labor organization in America, and 1920 was a presidential election year. This election would mark a turning point in American politics. The march of progressive politics that had begun with Republican Theodore Roosevelt and reached a peak with Democrat Woodrow Wilson was eclipsed by the mobilization for World War I.
Now the war was over, and Democrat James M. Cox was hoping to continue progressive ideas in a new decade. Republican Warren G. Harding and his running mate, Calvin Coolidge, were advocating a return to "normalcy."
The battle for the presidency began in earnest on Labor Day. For the first and only time thus far, two former newspaper editors -- Cox of the Dayton Daily News and Harding of the Marion Star -- would battle for the presidency.
In the years that followed Harding's victory in November, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democrat vice-presidential candidate, might have remembered the words of Gompers in Columbus when he called for a "new deal" to cope with the worst economic depression in American history.
In Columbus in 1920, the marchers and their families took themselves to the Driving Park on the east side of the city for speeches, a picnic and evening entertainment.
It was a good end to a good day.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.