Flashback Friday: 100 Years Ago, Minnesota Celebrated Armistice Ending World War I

Armistice Day celebrations on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis on Nov. 11, 1918. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society
Armistice Day celebrations on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis on Nov. 11, 1918.

November 09, 2018 09:37 AM

The news reached Minnesota well before the sun rose on Nov. 11, 1918.

And before dawn broke, thousands had gathered in downtown Minneapolis to celebrate the end of conflict in Europe.


"The news reached Minneapolis shortly before 2 o'clock yesterday morning," the next day's Minneapolis Tribune reported, describing how Minnesotans greeted the armistice that brought World War I to a close.

"Within a few minutes it sang across the sleeping city from the courthouse chimes. Hundreds of whistles took up the echoing message and sent it to the edge of town and beyond."

The Twin Cities of November 1918 were certainly in need of good news.

In addition to the war in Europe, which the U.S. had entered in April of the previous year, Minnesota had been hard-hit by the worldwide outbreak of Spanish flu, which had peaked in the state just weeks earlier.

At the time of the armistice, closure orders remained in place in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, shutting down schools, churches, movie houses, dance halls, pool and billiard halls and other places of amusement.

Those orders would not be lifted until four days later - on Nov. 15. The Tribune reported Minneapolis was still experiencing an average of 11 deaths daily that week.

To the north, the previous month had seen a forest fire that devastated a portion of northeast Minnesota.

RELATED: Flashback Friday: Looking Back 100 Years on the Great Fire of 1918

The war had also brought division, centered on the state's sizable number of recent German immigrants.

Then-Gov. Joseph Burnquist had removed political leaders from office in the New Ulm area the year before after they had spoken at a meeting protesting the military draft. A draft that meant some would have to go overseas to fight against relatives remaining in the old country.

"1918 was arguably the darkest year in Minnesota history," said Curt Brown, a longtime journalist at the Star Tribune, who still writes a history column for the newspaper and whose recent book is entitled "Minnesota 1918: When Flu, Fire and War Ravaged the State."

"You had a trifecta with the war raging in Europe, the flu pandemic which killed over 12,000 in Minnesota alone and some of the deadliest forest fires the state had seen.

"It was a really difficult time."

For the moment at least, though, all that was put aside as citizens swarmed into the streets to celebrate victory in both the Twin Cities and beyond.

What the Tribune termed a "deafening din of joyousness" lasted all day. Automobiles were draped with American flags and bunting, impromptu parades broke out and the Minneapolis Street Railway company reported serving more people than on any other single day in its history.

A cheerleader standing on the balcony of the Donaldson's Store in downtown Minneapolis led the crowd in singing "America" and the "Star Spangled Banner."

RELATED: Flashback Friday: Thanksgiving Fire Raged in Downtown Minneapolis 35 Years Ago

"Paper streamers, scraps of torn paper and rainbows of confetti made the dizzy air as noisy to the eye as it was to the ear," the Tribune reported, describing brisk sales of items like talcum powder and toilet paper to be tossed in celebration.

In Sleepy Eye, meanwhile, the commercial band played in the streets, and speakers called for cheers for the soldiers serving in Europe.

"The cheers were given with a will and the noise was deafening," the Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch reported.

Nearby in New Ulm, the scene of those protests the year before, the mood was much the same.

"Directly at one o'clock the whistles and church bells, in unison, began their din and kept it up for more than an hour," the New Ulm Journal wrote. "While a monster parade was forming at the armory."

St. Cloud reported "celebrating like the dickens," according to the Tribune. "And left whatever 'celebrating like the dickens,' meant to the imagination."

And in Mankato, a local paper reported businesses closed at noon as plans were made for a parade.

"People thronged the streets with all sorts of horns, bells and other noisemakers," read a story on the day's events. "And automobiles and trucks filled with hilarious noisemakers whirled up and down Front street."

But even on that joyous day, there were reminders of the cost of war. Mixed in amid the reports of celebration in Minneapolis was an item in the Tribune on the Mr. and Mrs. John Thyr family, who resided on Upton Avenue North.

They found out that day that their son David (one of six in the service) had been killed in France.

All told, according to research provided to KSTP in 2017 by Doug Thompson, the curator of the Minnesota Military Museum at Camp Ripley, 1,432 Minnesotans were killed in action between the U.S.'s entry into the war and the armistice.

Another 2,326 died of diseases like influenza, which had also spread quickly through military camps in France.

RELATED: Book Tells Story of Minnesota World War I Hero

Even when soldiers returned, the impact of what they'd been through could linger.

"Those guys coming home had been through trench warfare," Brown said. "Airplanes had been used for the first time. The Germans had used mustard gas. Today, we call it PTSD. But back then, a lot of those guys suffered from what they called shell shock."

But the war's end was a reason for giving thanks, a day still celebrated as Veterans Day 100 years later.

"With an absolute lid on saloons, soda fountains and cafes maintained throughout the whole of the celebration yesterday, restaurants, cafeterias and lunchrooms, which alone stood the brunt of hungry Minneapolitans, were forced to close early when supplies became exhausted," according to the Tribune.

"At midnight, but three eating places in the Loop remained open and these were soon filled."

It was a day to rejoice.

"Finally, it was a time to celebrate what had been a very bad year," Brown said. "And that's what people did."

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Frank Rajkowski

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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