Listening to Dissonant Voices: Dissent in Traverse City During the First World War

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. -John Stuart Mill, philosopher and economist (1806-1873)

In early 1917 the world was aflame with war.  Europe was engulfed with the fire; German tanks and artillery spread over the landscape and German U-Boats patrolled the seas.  In the United States, Hearst and other newspapers clamored for the entrance of the United States into the conflict and achieved success in their quest.  The United States entered the war on April 6, 1917.

It was a time of great patriotism and unrest.  Locally, the Elk Rapids school district resolved to stop teaching German since doing so only promoted the hateful culture of the Huns.  With the Michigan National Guard being sent to Germany, Traverse City created its own fighting force, a branch of the Michigan Home Guard, to protect local property from possible destruction by German sympathizers.  One man of the group stated:

Traverse City had enough deer hunters who could still use a rifle to form a company of men who could protect property at home or any other place to which they might be sent.  

A local drunk, Karl Temple, was arrested for saying he supported the German side and was imprisoned as a danger to America.  Liberty Bonds were sold to pay for the war and those unwilling to purchase them were labeled shirkers.  Patriotic fifth graders at Union Street School in Traverse City refused to sing the German song, “Watch on the Rhine.”  Downstate, a woman was tarred and feathered as a German sympathizer while her husband, bound to a chair, was forced to watch.  Things got so bad that the Michigan Governor, Albert Sleeper, issued a proclamation decrying vigilante action on the part of mobs aroused by hatred for all things German.

At this difficult time in American history, was there national opposition to  a war that provoked such patriotic feeling?  Beyond that, were there local figures who spoke out against social injustice and pro-war public sentiment?  Dissent at this time was dangerous.  Besides the possibilities of beatings and social ostracism, there was the very real possibility of being arrested for opposing the war. Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, a measure which made it a crime to speak out forcefully against the war.  Publishing antiwar views could be a federal offense.

Nationally, Progressive Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin resisted the call to war.  Speaking in Congress, he attempted to halt the movement towards joining the conflict.  For his efforts he faced an angry response from the Senate and from most Americans.  Austin Batdorff, editor of the Record-Eagle at this time, expressed the opinion of most of his paper’s readership:

The hour of the pacifist, the mollycoddle statesman and the pro-German American, has passed; from today on, every true American will bury his beliefs, his fears, his biases in his patriotic love of country, his convictions for democratic government and his determination that, right or wrong, this nation must defend itself against an enemy that has been given every opportunity to avert war and which has replied with insolence, insult and wanton destruction of American lives.  

Upon formal declaration of war, the pacifist movement lost the power to influence public opinion: Opposition to the war became suspect: unwelcome if not traitorous.  Batdorff wrote:

When [the president] speaks we either must obey like patriotic soldiers or refuse to obey like disloyal renegades.  

Courage was called for in questioning the decision to go to war.

An early portrait of Thomas Coxe, editor of "Honest Opinion." Image courtesy of the History Center of Traverse City.
An early portrait of Thomas Coxe, editor of “Honest Opinion.” Image courtesy of the History Center of Traverse City.

Opposition to the war came from two centers: religious pacifists and socialists who saw it as a way of exploiting workingmen.  Locally there is no evidence that religious pacifists—such as the Society of Friends—protested conscription or the war.  There was a socialist presence in Traverse City that, like most socialists nation-wide, resisted the involvement of the United States in the war.  Though small in numbers (locally about 8% of the 1916 vote for president went to the socialist candidate, Eugene V. Debs), the group was large enough to support a weekly newspaper, Honest Opinion, which circulated for a year or two—history is not clear on the dates of its founding or demise.  In fact, only a few issues survive on microfilm.

Perhaps the idea of socialists in a Northern Michigan small town with such a long-standing conservative legacy would surprise many readers.   At this time, Traverse City was an industrial city.  It did not survive solely by the cherry industry and summer resorts, but had a large and varied industrial base.  The Oval Wood Dish Company had operated here for many years, and cigar factories, the Amniotte candy factory, and the canning factory employed many hundreds of workers, both men and women.  In general they were much underpaid even by standards of the time.  The Traverse City Record-Eagle did not represent their interests, showcasing the views of wealthy businessmen in town instead.  Against the economic power of that paper, Honest Opinion could persist upon the streets of the city for only a short time.  Even so, the few thin copies that remain provide us with a window into the lives of working men and women who struggled to survive in a difficult environment.

One of the copies issued on Memorial Day, May, 29, 1919, tiptoes carefully in raising questions about the justice of the recent war. The editor wrote:

Again let us bow our heads in honor and in memory of these brave men for whom this day has been set apart and if there be any bitterness let it be directed at those who made wars and words but have never fought them.  We have no fight with the soldier though we may have with those who teach him and our reverence today does and should go forth to him never to be forgotten while the words of the orator who was at home will pass from our minds as does a drifting perfume on a breath of wind.

The idea that veterans are to receive honor for their service even if high officials have not always acted honorably resonates today after the legality and morality of recent wars have been questioned.  It is a humane thought, spoken by a veteran, Thomas Coxe, who had fought in the Spanish-American War.

Coxe had a reputation in Traverse City.  In 1917 he refused to stand during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” at a city commission meeting in which the sale of liberty bonds was discussed.  In fact, three times the anthem was played, and three times he refused to stand.  For his efforts, he was beaten by the enraged crowd.  Upon being contacted by the Record-Eagle the next day, he gave this statement:

I am a firm believer in democracy and served my country in the Spanish-American war because I believe that the Star Spangled Banner in principle, stands for honesty, justice, equality, free speech, free press, freedom and liberty.  I am against using the Star Spangled Banner for advertising purposes or the purpose of coercing public officials to vote against their conscience and what they believe is right.

Honest Opinion had a predecessor in town.  Though not socialist, the Traverse City Press promised to present the views of all citizens.  In an alliance with the Chamber of Commerce it advocated Open Forums, public discussions on a variety of issues, both local and national.  Harold Titus, later to become a well-known novelist, championed the forums and several were enacted at the City Opera House.  One was devoted to the inadequate salaries of Traverse City teachers, with Julius Steinberg, a powerful businessman, taking the position that the teachers were underpaid.  Several persons spoke out in opposition, including the superintendent of schools.  Perhaps the uproar thereby created explains why the Forums were soon discontinued.  In the end, free discussion of sensitive issues was not as welcome as organizers had supposed.  

The Traverse City Press soon degenerated into little more than an advertising circular with jokes, gossip, and fluff filling its pages.  At first, however, when its editor was the same Thomas Coxe who later edited Honest Opinion, the Press dared to publish letters from its working class readers that described life from a perspective not available in the Traverse City Record-Eagle.  One woman wrote in February, 1917:

Right about face, Traverse City and see yourself as others see you.

In your City Press of last week was an article stating as an inducement for factories to locate “among us,” it was a fact your manufacturers were paying an average wage of 470 dollars per year.

Statistics tell us that it requires an average wage of 800 dollars per year to keep the average family in just an existing condition.  The fact remains that your laboring men’s family are living on half of what it takes to keep an average family.  That means that they must depend on charity for the balance or go without.  The appearance of most of your people on your streets are doing both.

The writer went on to say how the Chamber of Commerce had induced manufacturers to move to Traverse City playing up the cheap women’s labor force.  

The Jackson Firm came in paying a fairly good wage.  When they found some of the women could make ten dollars a week, a new forelady came bringing a cut in wages.  At present another change of management and another cut in wages, but I hear nothing from you, no protest from your press or Chamber of Commerce.  Some of the girls are getting as low as 1.25 per week.

Furthermore, she speculated,“licentious behavior” might be related to low wages:

You probably heard the Rev. Mr. Stevens, of tabernacle fame, make the remark from his pulpit, that Traverse City was the most licentious of any town he had ever been in, that licentiousness lurked on every street corner.  …What is the cause?  Is it the low wages paid your women and girls?

The Traverse City Press served as a place for women workers to vent their anger at low wages and lack of respect.  Such a forum could not continue.  Soon the Press began to complain of boycotts directed towards its advertisers.  Abruptly, the radical tone of letters vanished.  The paper itself underwent a name change to the Grand Traverse Press.  Even in that form it did not publish long, disappearing some time around 1920.

Letters such as the one printed above paint a different picture of Traverse City from that displayed to summer visitors.  It simply was not a sunny town of cherry orchards, resorts, gorgeous beaches, and picturesque winters.  It had a dark side, too, with its factories that promised repetitive work for poor wages, a female workforce that was paid less than that of men for the same work, and the prospect of dismal room-and-board arrangements.   A state report issued in 1917 lists Traverse City dead last in Michigan for average wages paid to workers.  The 1914 Polk directory, a reference book giving names and occupations of residents, tells us that forty percent of people over fourteen years of age were listed as boarders i.e. they did not live independently in their own residences. Even taking into account the early broad definition of “boarder” (boarders could be students or grown children), this figure illustrates the sorry living conditions of many workers.  Clearly, homeowners and the people they took in had little money to spend on extras.  Life was not easy here.

Perhaps it is natural for a community to want to put its best foot forward, especially when visitors come calling so often.  The Traverse City Record-Eagle would not wish to air the grievances of working men and women.  Though disclaiming bias, it had a long history of working with the major players of the town—the Hannahs, the Millikens, the Hamiltons, and the Hulls.  It would not want to go against the interests of businesses that advertised so regularly within its pages.  Instead, the early Traverse City Press and, later, Honest Opinion would have to bear the burden of providing an open forum for all the citizens of the community.  Today we recall their valiant efforts with respect, understanding the importance of listening to the voices of all residents—those of workers, businessmen, veterans, pacifists, the uneducated and the educated.  It is only through such discourse that we advance as a community and as a nation.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal. This article was previously published in his book, Who We Were, What We Did: Fresh Perspectives on Grand Traverse History.

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