Mystery solved! Two early photos taken during Monmouth’s 1908 ‘Home Coming’
MONMOUTH, Ill. — Sometimes the solution to an age-old mystery can come unexpectedly, and that was the case recently when a 50-year-old question regarding a historic photo was finally answered.
Thanks to Scott Haase, who is renovating the former Review Atlas building, I came into possession of a wonderful photo of the Model Clothing Co., which for more than a century occupied the storefront that is currently the home of Maude Specklebelly’s boutique at 109 East Broadway. In the photo, the store is decked out in an impressive display of American flags and bunting.
Hoping to determine the occasion for the decorations (which appear to have been professionally hung), I looked for clues in the photo. The first clue was obvious, as the photo was dated in pencil “1908.” In the lower left is a poster advertising a play to be presented at the Pattee Opera House on Sept. 11. Checking digital newspapers from that time period, the Republican-Atlas told of plans for a major Labor Day celebration and parade, but it seemed a bit doubtful that a store would be so extravagantly festooned for Labor Day, so I kept searching for another major event.
In the Sept. 3 issue was a story headlined “BIG HOME COMING.” This was the clue I was looking for. During the week of Sept. 14–19, Monmouth would observe its annual fall festival, but this year it would pull out all the stops. In cities across the nation, homecoming celebrations were becoming all the rage, and Monmouth was to have its first one. (This was years before homecomings were widely adopted by high schools and colleges.) The idea was to draw former residents back to their hometown, but there was another important audience. Sponsoring the celebration were the local Grand Army of the Republic and Modern Woodmen chapters. Hundreds of old soldiers and sailors would converge upon the Maple City, with Thursday set aside for their annual meetings.
The magnitude of the week’s activities was remarkable — most of them presented through the auspices of a renowned carnival company from Indianapolis. In addition to several city blocks set aside for entertainment, a mammoth open-air hippodrome seating 7,000 persons was erected. In that arena were held four-horse chariot races with both men and women drivers, Roman standing races, jockey club events, foot races and other sports of ancient Rome. Professor Aero performed a parachute drop from a balloon, while daily concerts by two famed European opera singers were given daily and a fireworks exhibition given nightly.
Jean and Marie Weltzman, high-wire artists who were featured at the Pan-American Exposition, the Columbian Exposition, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and the Paris Exposition, performed, along with 25 aerialists and acrobats. A midway attraction included a Streets of Cairo exhibit, a Vogi-Hindoo theater, an Irish Village and a Dixie Plantation. There were diving ponies, trained lions, camels and elephants, a dog and pony circus, an educated dancing horse and a family of high divers.
A late addition was an exhibition by the daredevil Cameroni, who attached a wire to the roof of the Pillsbury building on the north side of the Square and slid to the headquarters tent at 100 miles per hour by holding a strap in his jaws attached to a pulley. Another crowd favorite was the “Great Bogo,” an escape artist that no jail cell could hold. A female dance company led by “Salome,” performing a “soul dance” drew quite an audience of men.
As for the flags and banners adorning The Model, the festival committee had secured a contract with a company from Peoria to decorate the downtown at the cost of hundreds of dollars. “The contract calls for the decoration of all the principal down town streets,” The Atlas said, “and the decorator assured the committee that the work would excel anything ever before attempted here. Nothing but fast colored material is used in the decorating and when arranged in an artistic manner makes a very attractive appearance.”
Cash prizes were offered to the businesses as an inducement to try to outdo one another in patriotic draping.
But what about the mystery photo? I had first seen that photo 50 years ago in a book issued by the National Bank of Monmouth in celebration of its centennial. The historical photo depicted the east side the 100 block of South First Street, which at the time consisted of a number of saloons, and the book’s author, Monmouth College history professor Garvin Davenport quipped in the caption that no respectable woman would walk on that side of the street. Written on the photo were “Wall Street ?” and “Home Coming.” When I edited the 1981 Monmouth sesquicentennial history, Born of the Prairie, I included that photo with the speculation that “Home Coming” might have referred to the return of Company H from the Spanish American War in 1898, but I really had no idea.
When I read about the 1908 fall festival being the city’s first Home Coming, it suddenly clicked that saloon row photo must have been taken at the same time as The Model photo (which was located directly across the street). Indeed, the bunting on those buildings closely resembles the impressive banners on The Model. Also, an enlargement of The Model photo verifies that the businesses on South First Street were the same in both images.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.