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St. Clair County in 1900

Michelle A. Peterson
Belleville Township High School West, Belleville

The year 1900 in the United States ushered in many changes across the country. Technology was changing, as was entertainment and communication. People were flocking to urban areas, where they became a part of the nation's ever-growing industrialization. They heard tales of a gas-powered automobile being used by the wealthy in Europe, while some Americans were buying Oldsmobile horseless carriages for around $650. For most people, though, owning an automobile was still only a dream. Twenty-four years after they had been invented, more than 1.5 million of Alexander Graham Bell's telephones were in use in the United States by 1900. Watching professional sports was a rapidly growing entertainment. Americans began to develop their own sports, such as baseball, rather than continue to play British sports. St. Clair County, in southern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, was caught up in the modern changes along with the rest of the country. One Belleville resident, Henry Deobald, even claimed to be the only man in the world to ride in an automobile constructed entirely by himself.

The residents of the county paid close attention to the presidential election of 1900. In this election, Republican President William McKinley ran for reelection, with New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt as his running mate. Roosevelt had become famous because of his success as a cavalry officer with the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. The Democratic candidate was William Jennings Bryan. The main issue during the election was whether the newly acquired territories from the war, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, should be given independence. Bryan stated that they should be given immediate independence, while McKinley supported civilizing their people before granting them their freedom. Republican William McKinley won the election by a 6 percent margin and settled into the White House for a second term.

The election campaign was especially interesting to the residents of St. Clair County because of Theodore Roosevelt's visit to East St. Louis on October 8, 1900. On this day, the largest crowd up to this time in the history of East St. Louis gathered to hear Governor Roosevelt speak. The crowd, estimated at twenty thousand people, watched an illuminated parade before moving toward city hall. Here, along with distinguished guests from the nearby towns of Centralia, Belleville, Columbia, Millstadt, Alton, and other area communities, the crowd anxiously awaited the governor's arrival. They had to wait in the cool night air for a long time because Roosevelt's train was delayed. In the meantime, various speakers, such as Missouri


Congressman Richard Rartholdt, Mayor Henry Ziegnheim, ex-Congressman Nathan Frank, and R. H. Langford, entertained the crowd. Finally, three hours after Roosevelt's expected arrival, he appeared at the city hall.

The former Rough Rider encouraged the people of East St. Louis to reelect William McKinley because the economy had prospered during McKinley's previous term as president. Several other Republicans also gave campaign speeches after Roosevelt's talk. It was a "gala night for the Republican Party and the Rough Rider," according to a newspaper report.


Fred J. Kern (top photo), democrat from Belleville, ran for U.S. Representative against Republican incumbent William A. Rodenberg. Kern won the 1900 election and served in Congress from 1901-1903. Rodenberg won the 1902 election and went on to serve several terms in the U.S. House.

St. Clair County residents paid close attention to local politics in 1900 as well. Republican William A. Rodenberg and Democrat Fred J. Kern ran for the United States House of Representatives. These two men treated St. Clair County to a fierce campaign, fueled by publicity from local newspapers. In the East St. Louis Daily Journal articles appeared that spoke avidly against Kern, claiming that Kern was "the arch enemy" of East St. Louis. The Belleville News Democrat, however, supported Kern. The employees of the East St. Louis Water Company were angered after reading Kern's quote in the Belleville News Democrat: "Frank B. Horner, the manager [of the water company], . . . issued a warning that any [employee] who votes for Fred J. Kern for Congress will be discharged." This lie angered the employees and they vowed to vote for Rodenberg. The newspaper apparently was influential, because at least 1,100 Democrats voted for Rodenberg. However, this was not enough, and Kern won the seat in Congress by a slim margin.

The most profound change between 1900 and the present time is the condition of East St. Louis. At the beginning of the twentieth century, East St. Louis was a booming industrial town. The town boasted the largest hog and cattle markets in the nation, the largest horse and mule market, and the second-largest meat packing center. East St. Louis also developed many factories, as well as the nation's second largest railroad shipping yards, largely due to the construction of the Eads Bridge, which was completed in 1874. As a result, railroads could cross the Mississippi River without being ferried across. The city was a grand place to live. It was filled with scenic parks, fine restaurants, and ornate theaters. Throughout the past century, the grandeur of East St. Louis has disappeared.

Though many changes have taken place in towns, technology, and politics, in 1900 people had many of the same worries, fears, and arguments as we do today. They argued over whether the new century would begin in 1900 or 1901. They concluded, "It will make no difference with time whether the new century commences this year, or next." They were also concerned with the coming century and what it would bring: "Will women bosses run politics as they now run the home? Will airships be provided for messenger boys? Will the automatic principle be adjusted to taxes so that they pay themselves?" They summed up their worries in this statement: "Now, candidly, wouldn't you like to know what sayers will be saying, thinkers thinking, writers writing, doers doing and plotters plotting at the end of the next hundred years?" [From Marcellus Bosworth, Boom and Bust; Robert Mohrman, Reflections; East St. Louis Daily Journal, Oct. 9, Nov. 4, Nov. 7, Dec. 31, 1900; History of the World Timeline: 1900, < cgi-bin/framed.cgi>.]


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