Wapsie Experience (4/13/17)

Ken Donnelly · Wednesday, April 12, 2017
Children, when they are in the infant stage, are said to babble. Poetry speaks of flowing babbling brooks. Almighty God, according to the book of Genesis, Chapter 11, verses 1-9, destroyed the Tower of Babel that humankind was building. The Lord came down to see the city and the tower the men had built. Then the Lord said: "If now while they are one people, all speaking the same language, they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do."

My readers may have learned in Sunday school that this divine action explains why we have the various languages of the world and why humankind was scattered all over the known world rather than all remaining in the vicinity of Eden.

Fast forward several thousand years to Des Moines, Iowa, 99 years ago on May 14, 1918, when Republican Governor William L. Harding issued his so-called Babel Proclamation. America had entered World War I against Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm April 6, 1917. In fact I am writing this column on the 100th anniversary of that entry.

I have consulted three sources to explain what happened after this controversial document was issued. The Palimpsest, July-August 1979 contained a sixteen page article written by Nancy Derr, author of the book, "Iowans During World War One: A Study of Change Under Stress."

Secondly, the Iowa History Journal, March-April 2017, which is a four page article

by Jerry Harrington entitled, William Harding: Making the case for perhaps Iowa's worst governor."

And lastly, our own West Liberty Index, along with area papers, the Iowa City Press-Citizen and the Muscatine Journal from the spring of 1918 to see if this blight on the First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion had any local consequences in West Liberty.

What I will describe really happened, we may wish it didn't, but we should face it and learn from it and not repeat it.

What did the Babel document foist on the Hawkeye landscape and our grand-parents and great grandparents if they spoke a foreign language here in America at that time?

"Only English was legal in public or private schools, in public conversations, on trains, over the telephone, at all meetings, and in all religious services."

Governor Harding defended his actions by stating the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights "does not entitle the person who cannot speak or understand the English language to employ a foreign language, when to do so tends, in time of national peril, to create discord among neighbors and citizens, or to disturb the peace and quiet of the community."

In November 1917, what was known as the Iowa State Council of Defense, formed to insure unity on the home front, resolved "that the public schools of Iowa, supported by public taxation, should discontinue the teaching of the German language."

At the same time, the Superintendent of Public Instruction was active in getting German as a subject out of all Iowa schools.

What happened next should have surprised no one; book burnings all over our state. "In State Center, Gladbrook and Vinton, and a dozen other towns, students broke into schools at night and made bonfires of the books."

A nearby target in eastern Iowa was certainly the Amish and Mennonite communities in the Kalona area, and also the seven villages of the Amana Colonies. Both communities had roots in Germany and people left there in the 19th century to seek religious freedom in America. Both German and what in America was called Pennsylvania Dutch were spoken by many.

Parochial schools conducted by citizens with Swedish, Norwegian, Danish as well as German roots, we found all over the state of Iowa. Many students attending these parochial schools came from homes that were German Evangelical or German Lutheran or Lutheran churches from Scandinavia. Instruction in German was banned in all these schools and extended to all parochial schools using any other foreign language as well.

Then as now, the most numerous parochial schools were Roman Catholic. Their instruction was in English, so they were not affected by the edict. I assume any prayers or hymns in Latin in those schools were of no concern as it was a "dead"language. DEO GRATIAS!

German was also outlawed in church services. Lutheran pastors conducting funerals for Iowa soldiers who grew up in German speaking communities, were forbidden to comfort mourners in German.

In a speech to the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, June 1, 2018, Governor Harding stated: "Everyone is now beginning to see that English is the official language of the country and that the Constitution doesn't allow a man to talk or pray in any other language....There is no use in anyone wasting his time praying in other languages than English. God is listening only to the English tongue."

I should point out to my readers that one hundred years ago, Iowa had many thousands of first generation immigrants whose first language was the one they brought with them from Europe. Derr's article told of church services in the Amana Colonies where "the congregation sat in silence during the entire "service" since even German prayers were specifically forbidden,then rising, at the appropriate intervals, to sing their German hymns." Governor Harding had forgotten to include the outlawing of singing in a foreign language!

In this era, many people of German heritage actually changed their names as some Iowa communities had intense disapproval of anything German. Neither article provided specific examples, however.

It should be recalled that the current British royal family are the English sounding Windsors; prior to the Great War,they were the Battenburgs with strong German roots.

As a kid growing up in Iowa City, a friend in my neighborhood, once told me that their real name as immigrants was Bernstein, but the father had changed it to Benton for greater acceptance in American society.

Geographic locations and certain businesses in Iowa also changed names.

Quoting Ms. Derr; "In present day Iowa, a township named "Liberty" or “Lincoln" usually was named "German" before 1915. A "German Savings Bank" has been a fixture of Iowa small town main streets, the "American Bank" was its replacement in Lowden, Carroll and Muscatine; it became "Liberty" in New Liberty, "Union" in Dubuque,"United States" in

Dyersville, and "Lincoln" in Tama County in a town that changed its name to "Lincoln"from "Berlin."

It should be noted that the "German Savings Bank" in Carroll, Iowa, was covered with batches of yellow paint three times before a name change occurred in September 1918.

In many Iowa towns, signs bearing the name "German" were routinely vandalized even when they were part of a church name. "The German Telephone Company" of Dillon, and the "German Mutual Insurance Company" of Tama County, changed their names; in Bellevue, city fireman tore down the sign of "The Bismarck" and in the  middle of the night, a landmark of Dubuque, the old sign over Germania Hall was removed.

"German measles" were called "Liberty measles". The city of Muscatine changed some street names, for example, gone were Bismarck Street and Hanover Avenue and in their place, Bond Street and Liberty Avenue.

The state of Iowa had no less than 46 German language newspapers in 1900; this gives one an idea of how wide spread German settlements in our state had been. By 1920, only 16 remained. It was not illegal to read the German language, only speak it. But the United States Postmaster General required all foreign language papers to provide an English translation of all the news in their paper prior to street sales or mailing privileges.

Le Mars, Iowa now famous for Blue Bunny ice cream had signs posted all over town for two months that read:

If You Are An American At Heart

Speak OUR Language

If You Don't Know It


If you don't like it


Four women from Le Claire Township near Davenport were fined for speaking German together on their party line! In Clarion, Iowa, the building housing the local telephone company received a coat of yellow paint; their crime? Letting the German language go over their wires without breaking in and interrupting it. In Lowden, a man named Henry Mowry visited the stores on Main Street regularly to make sure only English was being spoken.

I went to the State Historical Library in Iowa City and looked at microfilm of the West Liberty Index, the Iowa City Press-Citizen and the Muscatine Journal around the time of the Babel Proclamation. I struck out with the ICPC as their microfilm begins in 1921! The Journal, the day and the week after the Proclamation had no news story and no editorial pro or con.

In the case of the Index, the May 16, 1918 issue indeed had a proclamation on the front page, but it was by Mayor J.E. Anderson announcing the upcoming Memorial Day observance and that it was the time to decorate our soldier's graves. Attorney Robert Brooke was set to deliver a patriotic speech at the opera house that day also. I looked in vain for the next ten weeks, but no news story and no editorial by Mr. Hise on the controversial Proclamation..

West Liberty hasn't had any sizable population of German-speaking citizens at any time in our 179 year history. Nearby Wilton is the closest German-enclave to us. Also, West Liberty didn't have a Lutheran Church until the spring of 1954; another indication that our German population was never that large.
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