Wednesday, January 12, 2011

100 Years Ago - part 1

Our Neighbors

This is the first installment of a project that will be presented here from time to time, between regular featured essays, during the next 18 months. The theme is "Belleville 100 years ago". The target date for the project is August 24, 1912. It was then when everyone in town celebrated their civic pride on "Belleville Day" with much pomp and circumstance. While I am jumping the gun on this a bit, after all it is only 2011, there is a considerable array of material to put into a presentable format. By the time the target date actually arrives, it should all be in place for your enjoyment.

In this first installment, we'll meet the folks in town. These are people worth knowing. Belleville entered one of the two golden decades that occurred in the 20th century while this generation of citizens was active. 1912 was a peak year of the elegant, high-tech Edwardian age

It must be noted that there was significant lag time on this side of the Atlantic when discussing the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In England, where these eras were defined, the Edwardian era began in 1901 with the ascension of King Edward VII to the British throne and lasted until his passing in 1910. In America, however, we had been so enamored with the Victorian Era styles and customs that we were slow to make the change. Movement toward the lavish, fashion conscious Edwardian era in America did not really begin until around 1908 and it continued until war broke out in Europe in 1915 which effectively cut off our access to European fabrics, goods and fashions. Thus, 1912 was the height of the Edwardian era in America and we loved every minute of it.

The American Edwardian era was a high-tech age like no other before it. The gaslight, horse and buggy era was over. With enthusiasm and soaring expectations these folks welcomed the changes happening all around them. It was just 9 years ago that a man, for the first time in all of history, had flown through the sky in a flying machine. Now, these flying machines were everywhere carrying with them the eager sureness that everyone would soon be flying. Those amazing motor cars, a curiosity a decade ago, were now seen everywhere, they had become desirable consumer commodities. Everyone was saving their money in the hope of owning a motor car. Some of them could go faster than 25 miles per hour! That was faster than most people had ever gone in their entire lives. This was exciting. Motor boats were replacing sail boats. Telephones were already commonplace. Victrolas played all the recent hit tunes like the popular American Quartet version of Moonlight Bay, Bob Robert's Ragtime Cowboy Joe, or Scott Joplin's New Rag. Our civic ancestors loved to dance. There was a dance pavilion over at Hillside Pleasure Park. The two-step was in fashion. The teenagers liked the turkey-trot, although that was frowned upon in many places as an inappropriate display for young people .. shades of rock and roll forty years later! Ragtime music, popular a decade and two ago, was making a major come-back

Nothing explains better what it felt like to live in a time or place than does the music. Let's take out one of those old 78rpm victrola records, put it on the record machine, crank it up a few times, set the needle down on the record and listen. Imagine your civic ancestors doing the two-step to this music. This is Ada Jones, a very popular recording star of the time.

Below is a link to a collection of music popular at the time. These are the songs you would have heard in the living rooms, on the front porches and at the many social clubs throughout the town. Let yourself feel the rhythm, it's the rhythm of life in 1912.

1912 was a wonderful year! Business is thriving. New factories are moving in. The population is 14,000, growing at 10% per year. The town is boasting 40 miles of streets with 30 miles of them "macadamized". Public sewers are being installed. Electric street lights have been in place for over 25 years. The public school system is among the best in the state.

Let's stroll about the streets in our village, tip our hats and say, "How d'you do", to our neighbors. These are the people who are demanding a newer, better Belleville. Civic pride can be seen in their eyes in every photograph.

Let's begin at Town Hall on Main Street. Yes, that's right, on Main Street. There is a new Town Hall under construction on Washington Avenue, but that won't be ready 'til next year; 1913. For now, the town offices are located on the second floor of a multi-purpose building on Main Street about ten car-lengths south of the old Dutch church, on the river side of the road. There are stores on the first floor and a Sunday School along with the municipal offices on the second. Let's meet our town officials -

Moving along through the center of town, we meet old William "Doc" Hood. He's been active in recreation, athletics and schools for as long as anyone can remember.

William "Doc" Hood

Look ! .. there is William Bennett and his family in their 1910 Rolls-Royce.

And there is Stella and Mary standing by their front gate.

There is a large collection of photos of townsfolk from 1912 available, more than can reasonably fit in this blog space. However, they are assembled into a photo album for you to view. Click here to see the album -

Photo Album

As this project evolves, you will become intimately familiar with every aspect of Belleville as it was a hundred years ago. I hope you enjoy this trip back in time. It may be interesting to see how we have changed. Or, perhaps we haven't changed at all; we are still good people striving to build an increasingly better town. Perhaps the old folks we have met today would be as proud of us as we are of them.

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