A temporary tabernacle on May’s Island hosted a communitywide Thanksgiving celebration in Cedar Rapids in 1914 — a celebration that attracted hundreds of citizens, all praying for peace as World War I consumed Europe.
“The merchant, the millionaire, the laborer, the minister, the banker, the artisan, and the women and children of all creeds and beliefs joined today in the first municipal thanksgiving and peace meeting ever held in the United States,” The Evening Gazette reported. “More than a thousand persons assembled at the tabernacle on the island and joined in a prayer to the Almighty for the blessings bestowed on this community during the closing year.”
At the time, May’s Island, with the new Second and Third Avenue bridges connecting it to the east and west sides of the city, was transforming from private property into a hub for city government.
The island had empty space where some churches had put up a temporary tabernacle to host a six-week revival that ended Nov. 24.
The Cedar Rapids Ad Club, a 4-year-old civic booster club, suggested using the tabernacle, before it was torn down, for a community Thanksgiving celebration.
The Municipal Thanksgiving and Peace Day resulted. With World War I underway in Europe, the “peace” in the event’s title was timely and pointed.
The idea gained momentum. Mayor Louis Roth and David Morrison, secretary of the Cedar Rapids Federation of Labor, got on board, as did the Cedar Rapids Commercial Club (the forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce), the Ministerial Association, the West Side Improvement League, the South Side Improvement Club, the 16th Avenue Boosters and the Kenwood Park Commercial and Improvement Club,
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The “monster” celebration in the island tabernacle — the “biggest Thanksgiving Day service the city had ever seen” — was not held under the auspices of any church, although religious leaders figured prominently in the program.
The service was scheduled for 10 a.m. Nov. 26, but the tabernacle — decorated in red, white and blue bunting and American flags — was filled an hour before that, and many people were unable to get inside. Most of those attending were men, members of the city’s commercial organizations, industrial clubs and labor unions.
Mayor Roth opened the celebration, followed by a choir singing “America.”
President Woodrow Wilson’s Thanksgiving proclamation was read, as was a resolution calling on Wilson and Secretary of State W.J. Bryan to work for peace in Europe.
Speakers included the Revs. C.H. Stauffacher, S. Turner Foster of Westminster Presbyterian Church, E.R. Burkhalter of First Presbyterian and Dean Toomey of Immaculate Conception Church. Music was interspersed.
A freewill offering was divided between the Sunshine Mission, a local charity that helped the homeless and needy, and the Red Cross, to be used for relief of those suffering from the war in Europe.
“This perhaps will be the first time in the history of any city in this nation where its people have gathered in a public municipal meeting, a meeting endorsed by the city, the churches and the business men’s organizations to give thanks for prosperity and to offer a prayer to God that the nations of Europe be brought to their senses and the war ended,” The Gazette reported.
Another municipal Thanksgiving service was held in 1915 at the Strand Theatre and included an original song, “Where the Cedar River Flows.”
The municipal service was suspended in 1916 when the United States had entered World War I. The next municipal Thanksgiving was in 1918 — after Armistice Day — at the City Auditorium.
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The municipal Thanksgiving service was revived one more year, in 1928, in the new Veterans Memorial Building, with Coe President H.M. Gage as speaker.
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