War hysteria in isolated Aspen
September 17, 2010
My mother delighted in telling her tale of Armistice Day. She was 10 years old in 1918, when she was given the responsibility, and honor, of passing the word to her anxious family that World War I had ended.
At the time, the family home was in the building that now houses Explore Booksellers. Mother stood watch in the front yard awaiting the signal, the raising of the American flag on top of the Hotel Jerome. The hotel took on the role of information disseminator, for we had neither radio nor television. Many households had no telephone. For my mother, the symbolic flag-raising not only announced the signing of the armistice, it also signaled the end of discrimination and hatred that she had experienced as “the enemy.”
Even in isolated Aspen, during World War I anyone of German descent became suspect. Although Mother’s father was Irish, her mother was born in Blackhawk, Colo., and her grandmother was born in Denver in 1864, her great-grandmother was German. Like most immigrant families of the time, Mother’s family spoke their European language and celebrated Old World customs. Outside their home, they were as American as apple pie. Even my mother’s name, Willmina, had been Americanized from her grandmother’s Wilhelmina.
In 1918, Aspen included ethnic neighborhoods: the Swedes, the Irish and the Italians. There was no German neighborhood because most Aspenites of German heritage were second- and third-generation immigrants who had intermarried with other ethnic groups. Even so, in wartime America, everyone remembered their neighbor’s ancestry. All Germans became “the enemy,” no matter how long the family had lived in America. At the outset of the war, my mother’s mother recognized the peril of displaying “anything German.” The day war was declared, mother was forbidden to speak German.
The war effort included conditioning the home front against the enemy. Colorado’s own George Creel was recruited by President Wilson to organize authors and artists in the fight. His most effective method was the “Four Minute Men” who gave fiery speeches across the country in churches, movie theaters, schools and anywhere else that people gathered. Four minutes was his estimate of the American attention span.
Creel’s American Defense Society published propaganda like the following verse from “The Oath” in the Aspen Democrat Times. “I will not take a German’s word/ He’ll break it if he can/ There is not love in a German heart/ Or faith in a German man.” War hysteria was not limited to snide and cruel comments from children to their undeserving peers. Adults harbored suspicions about the loyalty of their German neighbors.
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An incident that my mother remembered illustrates the extent of the hysteria. There was no Highway 82 then. The road to Glenwood Springs exited Aspen along the present Cemetery Lane, slipping behind Red Butte. To leave Aspen you had to cross the Slaughterhouse Bridge at the same location as the present one, which crosses the Roaring Fork at the base of Red Butte.
A dynamite explosion near the bridge generated the wildest of rumors. The blast was most likely set by a hungry trout fisherman, as dynamiting was a shortcut to filling the larder with fish, and no one would disclose that they had taken part in a practice that was scorned by all. Since the nation was at war, and there were ethnic Germans in the community, the blast quickly was attributed to attempted enemy sabotage. Each retelling escalated the belief that devious provocateurs were behind the dynamiting. Aspenites believed that they were under attack and that spies were attempting to block the exit from town.
War hysteria and anti-German sentiment served as cornerstones to a strategy for waging an overseas war. George Creel’s efforts to evoke a commitment to war in the hearts of those at home succeeded. Residents of a town far from any American shoreline believed that the enemy could and would blow up its essential bridge.