MONMOUTH, Ill. — As the calendar turns to May, I am reminded of the great significance that May 1 formerly held in history. It is little remembered today that May Day was once celebrated as International Workers’ Day by Socialists and Communists to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. It is also largely forgotten that in pagan Europe, May 1 was celebrated as the first day of summer and gave rise to the traditional winding of the Maypole and crowning of the Queen of the May.
Another May Day tradition from my youth, which has now faded into obscurity, is the giving of May baskets. Children would construct colorful baskets from paper, fill them with flowers or candy, and hang them on neighbors’ doors.
Maypoles and May Queens may seem quaint today, but a century ago they had immense popularity in Monmouth, when an annual May Party was presented by Monmouth College students. The 1912 spectacle, according to the Daily Atlas, attracted a crowd of “thousands of visitors.”
The Monmouth College May Day tradition began in 1896, when Monmouth’s two female literary societies — Aletheorian and Amateur des Belles Lettres — staged a pageant in the Auditorium that included the crowning of a queen and a Maypole dance. The event rapidly grew in popularity, causing it to be moved outside to “The Valley Beautiful,” a former creek bed behind Wallace Hall, which is today occupied by a parking lot.
Among those in attendance at the 1912 May Party was Miss Clara Belle Kongable, a freshman from Winfield, Iowa, who herself would be crowned Queen of the May in her senior year. Kongable kept a scrapbook, in which the photographs of the 1912 event used today were preserved.
While the May Party was performed exclusively by women and children of the community, the college men were not completely left out. An annual male tradition held the night before the event was the Nightshirt Parade or “Nighty Night,” which began with a mock Maypole dance. According to the Atlas, “Gowned in ‘night shirts’ of various hues (the men) gave the usual mock ceremonies on the campus and then headed by a little traveling German band, made a weird march down through the heart of the city. Refreshments were secured and then the various members of the faculty were visited. In most instances the charivari resulted in the appearance of the ‘prof,’ who responded with a short talk.”
The morning of the May Party, the male students and male faculty also got to cast their votes for the Queen of the May, who in 1912 was Miss Helen McCorkle of Carthage, Indiana — “Tall and stately and of the light brunette type … regarded as one of the beautiful girls of the school.”
To impart its full flavor, I will let the Daily Atlas correspondent describe the 1912 event:
“It was but a few moments after five o’clock when the parade of dancers started from the library to the arena. Leading were the Hungarian Folk dancers, dressed in black sateen ankle high skirts with white caps and kerchiefs, the only touch of color being bands of ribbon upon the waists and shirts with hose to match. Then came the scarf girls dressed in white with yellow scarfs and festooned red paper roses.
Following these came the gayly decorated Japanese girls, with highly colored cheeks and penciled eye brows. Each dress rich in the variegated colors so dear to the heart of the esthetic Japanese. About the waists the broad obis. As these dancers entered the arena they lined up along the outer edge of the great circle, and then entered the chorus, the Queen’s attendants, the maid of honor, and, with stately, solemn bearing, the queen herself in all the majesty that regal state and regal authority might rightly attain. She, the maid of honor, the dainty little attendants and the chorus, dressed in white.
“Approaching the throne all ascended excepting the queen, who paused as little Martha Clendenin, one of the attendants before whom the Queen bowed low, placed upon the royal brow the crown of garlands that formally made her Queen of the May.
“The program of the dances began with the singing of a spring song by the chorus, the place at the piano being taken by Miss Elsie Gates.
“The dances opened with the quaint Hungarian folk dances then the more lively though not more graceful scarf and flower dance, following which came the bowing and kowtowing of the brightly arrayed Japanese. As they danced their parasols added movement and color to the scene.
“And now came the final act of the well arranged and perfectly carried out May Dance. It was the May Pole dance itself. The weavers were assisted by the scarf girls, who formed an outer Circle made even more intricate the movement of the eight who wound and unwound the long green and white ribbons which hung from the high pole that had been placed in the center of the circle with the end of the Japanese dance.”
The May Party, which later became known as the May Fete, remained an annual Monmouth College tradition through 1957, by which time it had been moved to the lawn south of the gymnasium, and a Chancellor was elected to escort the Queen. Beginning in 1958, the King and Queen of the May reigned instead over the spring formal.
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.