The Labor Day Parade That United Rhinelander Workers in 1909

Aug 28, 2019

In anticipation of the upcoming Labor Day weekend, we’re remembering a Labor Day celebration that took place in Rhinelander in the early 1900’s today.

Gary Entz has the story for this week’s A Northwoods Moment in History.

Another Labor Day is almost here, and many visitors and residents alike will be spending the holiday by enjoying all that the Northwoods has to offer.  But Labor Day is about more than simply time off to enjoy one last, long summer weekend.  Labor Day is a celebration of the American worker, and it was established specifically, as the initial proposal stated, to celebrate “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations”

In Rhinelander labor organizations took this charge seriously.  For example, the Labor Day celebration of 1909 was arranged by select committees of the various labor and trade unions throughout the Northwoods region.  Labor solidarity was paramount in the eyes of the working-class back then, and in 1909 the Labor Day celebration was larger and more festive than the activities organized around the July 4 holiday.  All the mills, factories, and business places closed on that day so the workers could celebrate with their families.

The festivities of September 6, 1909, opened at 9:30 a.m. with a monster parade through downtown in which all the trade unions and fraternal organizations marched, flying their union banners.  Prizes were awarded to the group with the largest number of men marching and to the group with the largest percentage of its members marching.  Winners that day included the Modern Woodmen of America with 67 marchers and the Sons of Norway with 40.  The parade, headed by a military band, proceeded from downtown, over the Davenport Street bridge, then finished at what was then Pelican Grove on the west side of town.  As the workers assembled, Mayor Fred Anderle gave the opening address.  Harvey Dee Brown, who was affiliated with Emil Seidel’s Socialist mayoral administration in Milwaukee, was scheduled to give the keynote address of the day but fell ill and was unable to attend.  Another prominent Social Democrat, W. A. Jacobs stood in for him.  In his speech, Jacobs spoke on the need for organized labor and how working men must stand united in their struggle against capital and the corporations.

After a luncheon, the organizers provided an afternoon of games and competitive activities for everyone.  Some of these included track and field events, bicycle races, automobile races, and contests of skill, such as nail driving competitions.  The only mishap that marred the day came during the height of the competitive activities when a temporary grandstand holding nearly 200 people collapsed.  Fortunately, there were only a few minor injuries.

As day gave way to evening, the revelers adjourned to Gilligan’s Hall and the Armory, where community dances had been organized.  The military orchestra entertained guests at the Armory through the evening, and dancers celebrated the day of the worker well into the wee hours of the morning.  On that day in 1909, the Northwoods definitely was united behind labor.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above is from a historic postcard being sold on Amazon. It can be purchased here.