Last time: We opened a new century in Cambridge and around America, from 1901-1910 (already checked in on 1911 in an earlier chapter.)
Chapter 21: The Great War and the Roaring 20s, 1914-1929
Across the North Atlantic, 3300 miles to the east, to the ancient homeland of many a Cambridge resident, one cool summer day during the reign of King George V—August 4, 1914, to be exact—an account like the following may have unfolded on estate grounds up and down the British Isles.
A dozen or so English gentry and their fair ladies are milling about, some seated, enjoying themselves at an afternoon party on the broad lawn of a stately manor. The soft strains of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” play on the gentle breeze under partly cloudy skies. Family and guests are attended to by the staff, a scene back-dropped by lily-pad ponds and gazebos, by scattered canopies of old oaks and the large buff-colored stone abbey turned private residence. Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, sits in a tent with flaps open to the event, his wife Cora, Countess of Grantham (an American,) at his side. “Are you warm enough?” he asks. “I am when you're holding my hand.” The butler, Mr. Carson, enters with a post tray. “Your Lordship? This has just arrived for you.” “Thank you.” Robert stands as he takes it. “Oh, and I'm happy to tell you that Thomas has just handed in his notice. So we'll be spared any unpleasantness on that score.” “What a relief”, replies the earl as he unseals the missive. Robert places the letter opener back on the tray and Carson leaves. Robert's expression changes to foreboding surprise as he reads the letter. He exits the tent and pulls off his hat to wave, to gather everyone's attention. “Please, will you stop, please!” The string quartet stops playing. “My lords, ladies and gentlemen. Can I ask for silence?” All conversations cease and the servants step out of the catering tent to listen. “Because I very much regret to announce ... that we are at war with Germany.” Everyone stands in shock.
The estate, of course, is the fictional Downton Abbey, of the highly acclaimed PBS series. The United States and Cambridge would abstain from the conflict for another three years as life went on as usual through the mid-teens. In 1914 Woodrow Wilson was a year in the White House and would be narrowly re-elected in ’16, with authority to keep us out of the war. But our neutrality was pushed to the limit when the original Evil Empire directed relentless submarine warfare across the Atlantic shipping lanes. And, get this, the Kaiser, Darth Wilhelm II, tried to enlist Mexico as an ally. “We’ll give you LA, the Grand Canyon, and the Alamo if you let us tie up our U-boats in your ports, and greet us with Mariachis and Margaritas.” Or something like that. Mexico City wisely demurred with “no thanks”, with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on the line.
Updates of the remote war for anyone in Cambridge interested appeared daily on the village newsstands or on your grandfather’s front porch through the pages of The New York Times, or weekly in the mail box in the Washington County Post. News with a more civil tone by 1915 included the move of the U.S. Tennis Open, held in Newport, RI since 1881, to Forest Hills, Queens (the word, incidentally, derives from the French tenir, “to hold”.) The next year, the first PGA Championship teed off in Eastchester, NY, the third of four modern golf Grand Slams (British Open, 1860; US Open, 1895; Augusta Masters, 1943.) In Cambridge a cop on wheels was seen for the first time in 1915 rumbling up and down the two year old yellow bricks of Main Street. All drivers of Model-Ts and the like were now required—imagine this—to stay to the right of center of the roadways and, before street signs, to honk (or shout?) when approaching a cross street…or risk a $10 fine or a day behind bars. In ‘16 speed bumps would be installed at the Main intersections with Park and Union and out at the Tannery. Also in 1915, in a viscous attack on the local power grid, the 25 candlepower incandescent street lamps were upgraded to 32 cp. By 1918 village trees began to get hugged, i.e. trimmed, watered, sprayed. And the following year we finally got those annoying street signs.
For the time being we merrily played on while thousands in Europe died in a bitter game of geopolitical chess between knights and kings and rooks who checkmated archdukes and slaughtered pawns (queens, of course, ruled the ranks and files.) Soon the call to go to the aid of our British Crown and French brethren, closest allies then as now, could no longer be muffled. It’s no accident that our tri-colors are the same: red, white and blue…bleu, blanc, rouge; that we have a history, since at least the Civil War, of standing back-to-back-to-back, to defend against all comers. Though frequently we have to whack France up side the head like a petulant brother—think Gibbs and DiNozzo on NCIS—even after liberating them from Germany, twice, leaving thousands of Yanks and Brits, Canucks and Aussies on their bloody beaches.
The balloon went up in April 1917 when Wilson asked Congress to declare WAR! That gave The Times reason to get out the big type. The president instituted the first draft since the Civil War, issued billions in Liberty Bonds, set up the War Industries Board, cuddled up to labor unions, directed agriculture and food production through the Lever Act, took over control of the railroads, basically took over everything. And he suppressed anti-war movements, spawning the whiney—self-important to many—ACLU. He gave a talk on Flag Day, June 14th, stoking anti-German sentiment and drawing tens of thousands of farm and city boys into the ranks of doughboys headed “Over There”, including a fair share from southern Washington County. The Honor Roll, dedicated in 1919 at Cambridge Memorial Park, records for posterity the 178 who served from the towns of Cambridge, Jackson, and White Creek, including five soldiers and two nurses who fell in combat, never to return from the trenches and barbwire, the mud and mustard gas, rifle fire and artillery shells, to resume normal lives. “Shell shock” back then is today’s PTSD, with the same need for outreach and healing. Some of that healing—a “we will never forget” spoil of war—a German 2.5 cm naval gun, was installed in the Park in 1922 by Rice Seed, maintained now by the American Legion. Late in the war Wilson negotiated with Germany, and the armistice of November 11, 1918 was his baby. Germany never surrendered, and WWII commenced on November 12, 1918. Thank you, Dr. Wilson. Thankfully, though Britain signed up, U.S. membership in the League of Nations died on the vine as the new world body, under its Article X, could compel our sovereign nation into future war. Say what??? Obviously the Senate balked.
In 1916 the Health Districts of Cambridge, Jackson and White Creek merged just before another calamity raked the world, the pandemic of 1918. The “Spanish flu” lasted through 1920 and bugged not only young and old, infirm and frail, but healthy adults as well, sending a billion to death’s door, killing 50-130 million across the planet; scared the stuffing out of everybody. But with the cornerstone set on 4 July 1917, the Village celebrated the opening in January ‘19 of Mary McClellan Hospital. The statuesque Edwardian edifice on the Hill with the million dollar view and state-of-the-art medicine came none too soon with the flu at its height. In the photo, on the far right is the surgeons’ quarters and in the middle is the “Junior Hospital for contagious diseases.” How many made it out alive? The Florence Nightingale Nursing School opened in 1922 and graduated several generations of excellent caregivers well into the 1970s. (For a good review, see Ken Gottry’s recent slide show at the website referenced at the end.)
In 1918, bells rang out on 11-11 at 11:11 am, followed by dancing in the streets, in city ballrooms and small town gyms. Prosperity boomed across America, including in Cambridge, fueled by free market enterprise. Large corporations and small mom-and-pops with smart business plans “built it on their own”, as the Founders envisioned in a Constitution designed to limit the federal government’s reach (and certainly not to divisively play to certain voter blocs.) Americans in the ‘20s beamed a post-war glow that embraced jazz and the Charleston, invested in a rocketing Wall Street, plunged over Niagara Falls in barrels! Firms offered new gizmos, radios, washing machines, frozen foods, Band-Aides. Professional sports took off in the ‘20s, the NFL, NHL, MLB. Bronx and Beantown invented a rivalry that few match today, pro or pleasure. Red Sox won two World Series in the teens but the Yankees began an unprecedented run in ’23 to become the champion of champions, all time, all sports, bar none. In small town Cambridge in 1925, CHS football, behind Nick Canzeri, Johnny Galloway, and Martin Church ran to an Upstate NY legend: undefeated (9-0) by beating the local burgs and area city schools as well with a final composite score of 347-14!
Back in the real world, sobering lessons also defined the decade: the 18th Amendment (1919) prohibited the ...manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States…. Congress passed the Volstead Act to enforce the 18th, but cities dodged the law, leaving a short team of G-Men to chase down countless bootleggers. Consumption declined a bit nationally but increased in metro areas through organized crime—including the Joe Kennedys of Hyannis Port—not to mention guys slinking around with violin cases on St. Valentine’s Day. Sale of beer, whisky and wine was illegal but readily available in speakeasies, private bars in dance halls behind bookcases, under floor mats, smuggled in mostly from Canada. But not in Cambridge, of course, right? Prohibition came increasingly under fire in the early ‘30s (discussed next time.)
With free US Mail delivery since 1918, Cambridge front doors were numbered in 1921, the year we also adjusted our clocks an hour in the fall and spring for corn fields and kids’ safety. In 1924 the Village re-incorporated, East and West Districts eliminated, and in ‘25 six Trustees became four. The Cambridge Police, part-time motorcycle cops for special occasions, earned $100/month after the citizens voted down a permanent officer at $1200/year, a decision reversed in ’26. The new full-time peace officers also patrolled the Great Cambridge Fair on the outskirts of town. By 1925, cars needed two front white lights and a red one in the rear. New stop signs went up at village RR crossings in ’26, the year CFD bought its American LaFrance Fire Engine ($3,394), for decades a workhorse around town. The Village President, now elected to a two-year term, became Mayor in 1927. In ‘28, the Village bought a snow plow and tractor for $2500, and began to test the fire siren at Noon every day. Also that year, NY Power and Light took over from Adirondack L&P, and in ’29 the first traffic light in Cambridge went up at Main and Park. During the Roaring 20s, much of the area’s pursuit of leisure, after long hours of hard work in the field, factory floor, shop, office, home centered at the lakes six miles up Route 22, on Hedges, Lauderdale and the others. Life went on swimmingly in Cambridge and across America ... until the Crash of ’29 on 29 October, a Friday. The howling arrived two days early that year.
Next time: Chapter 22, The Great Depression, 1930-1939
Sources: Cambridge Village Archives; Raymond family archives; the biography Col. Robert R. Raymond (1871-1944), Thomas M. Raymond © 2010
CAMBRIDGE HISTORY LIVES © 2011