Friday, November 9, 2018

Armistice Day in Schenectady

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the very first Armistice Day parade in Schenectady. Armistice Day was originally a commemoration of the ceasefire on the Western Front of World War I. The act that made Armistice Day a national holiday was approved on May 13, 1938. It stated that November 11 was to be  "dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be hereafter celebrated and known as Armistice Day." In 1954, after two wars that the United States were involved in, Armistice Day was changed to Veteran's Day to honor American veterans of all wars. Armistice Day is scarcely remembered today, but the relief and joy Schenectadians felt when the armistice was announced should not be forgotten.

The Armistice Day Parade on Dock Street. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives.
Schenectady was alight with activity starting with the Schenectady Gazette's announcement that the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918 at 5:00 am in Paris (2:50 am EST), stating that the end of hostilities would occur at 11:00 am (6:00 am EST). The celebrations were to began early in the morning and would end up going through midnight. With a population nearing 90,000 people, the Armistice Day celebration was the biggest the city had ever seen. An impromptu parade began at 3:30 am when a young man collected a group of people and started the parade. This group snowballed and soon enough, hundreds of people joined in on the festivities. The Newsboy Association's bugle, fife, and drum corps. kept the marchers in line. As the group marched along the canal down Dock Street, they decided to make a stop at General Electric to try and entice some GE workers into joining. Their plan worked, and the group grew even larger. By 9:00, the group was so large that little progress could be made down the streets.

This 1916 photo shows the members of the Schenectady Newsboys' Association Fife and Drum Corps. The Fife and Drum Corps was first organized in April 1916 with 35 boys from the Newsboys' Association. By the following year, the group had grown to 58. During World War I, the Schenectady Newsboys' Association Fife and Drums Corps marched in uniform in patriotic and military parades. Image from the Larry Hart Collection. 
 Small groups would make their way downtown as well. Children grabbed pots, pans, whistles, and anything they could make noise while older teens whitened their faces with feather dusters and talcum powder. All sorts of vehicles were enlisted into the parade and groups of Union students were seen driving an ash collectors truck. The Gazette wrote about a young boy that they dubbed "The modern Paul Revere." This young boy rode a horse through the streets of downtown blowing a bugle and yelling at people to wake up.

Yet another parade was formed in the afternoon. This parade was just as wild and raucous as the early morning parades, although this one was slightly more organized according to the Gazette. The paraders marched through dinner time and those too exhausted to march stood to the side to anxiously wait for the troops to arrive. The Gazette commented upon "the new position of women acquired during the war" as the women of the Schenectady Motor Corps. arrived "khaki-clad with bright brown leather belts and straps and military caps places at just the right angle."

Merrymakers celebrating in the streets of Schenectady. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives.
Shortly after the Schenectady motor corps. passed, the Schenectady County soldiers of World War I marched down State Street. They stood "straight and staunch" and the first to arrive were the warehouse corps, then the New York State Guard. The Army Depot also brought its trucks and ambulances down State Street to show off. The greatest applause was held for the black troops as they marched together without a break in their lines. Next in line were the Red Cross nurses to which the crowd yelled "You've done your share and we're proud of you." Other notable members of the parade was Major John E. McKerracher. McKerracher was in charge of the warehouses in South Schenectady/Rotterdam and was responsible for housing and moving troops as well as transporting equipment. 

The celebrations weren't just for early risers though and a massive nighttime parade formed around 8:00 pm. Marchers organized at Jay and Union and were led over to Washington Ave, back up State, up Albany Street to Hulett and finally disbanding at Nott Terrace. This parade included many bands, including the inexhaustible newsboys' association who were some of the first marchers of the day. Thirteen different military units joined the parade as well as the police, firemen, and just about every fraternal and ethnic organization in the area. Other features of the parade included many large American flags, a poster carried by the Jewish organization which read "Jewish Flag Recognized by the Allies", the Kaiser's coffin which read "The Kaiser is dead," and an armor clad Schenectadian with a sign that read "To Hell With The Kaiser."

The parade marching down State Street in 1918. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives. 
The festivities carried on with only only a few cases of "misguided energy." Throughout the day, people placed "torpedoes" on the trolley tracks that would explode when the trolley car ran over them. A piece of steel struck a spectator waiting by the side of State Street, causing a large gash in her cheek. More mischievous members of the crowd found pleasure in throwing talcum powder and other powdery substances in the faces of spectators. The Gazette also expressed displeasure at the late-night intoxicated crowds who contributed to much of the bad behavior. Despite this mischief, the police reported that there were no more arrests than on an average day and most of the work of Schenectady's police force consisted of confiscating talcum powder.

The all-day armistice parade was a release from the stress caused by four years of worldwide uncertainty and fear from the largest war up until that point. As the war went on, neutrality became more and more difficult to maintain and many men and women from Schenectady County joined to help with the war efforts. World War I was a war unlike any other before it, but unfortunately it was not "the war to end all wars." The sentiment expressed by the Schenectady Gazette that "such a day only comes once in the history of a nation" proved to be false as many of the people who celebrated Armistice Day in 1918 would still be alive during V-E Day just 27 years later. 

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