By Richard H. Allen
Special to the Observer
In 1920, the “Community Church” in Williston (perhaps a reference to the Old Brick Church) needed electrical wiring, so a community pageant was organized to raise some money for the project. This would be different in some respects from the historic performances mounted in July of 1913 that were part of the 150th anniversary celebration of the town’s 1763 charter. The same venue was chosen. It went by the name of Chittenden Park and in the early 1900s it was used for pageants and picnics. This was the amphitheater along the banks of Allen Brook on Belle Clark’s land. It is located behind what is now the Immaculate Heart of Mary church.
This “ideal spot” had “no good automobile road into the park.” Drivers would have to park in the meadow and take the walk down into the area. The “setting of trees, sloping hillside, brook running over the stones” could not…”be rivaled,” according to the Burlington Free Press.
The pageant, entitled “America, Yesterday and Today,” was presented on Aug. 11 and 12, 1920. Walter J. Cartier of Burlington, a 23-year-old auto mechanic who apparently had a drama background, was hired to direct the show and provide the costumes. He was the local representative of H. Buchholz & Son, a theatrical supply company from Springfield, Massachusetts.
There were four episodes and a closing: Spirit of Indian Days, with a corn dance, the renewal of prosperity and a peace pipe ceremony; Spirit of the Wilderness, with butterflies, flowers and a wood nymph dance; Pioneer scene, where “man overcomes the trees” and tames the land; Spirit of Patriotism, which welcomed an overwhelming number of civilized pursuits (art, drama, church, school, “little town interests” and many others, including forest preservation.) No faction of society was to be left out. The grand finale was a pledge to the flag and the singing of “America” with six ethnic groups represented.
The large majority of the people listed in the program as organizing the various groups were Williston residents. One exception was Miss Grace Cashman of Burlington, the solo dancer in the “Wilderness” episode.
So had Williston grabbed a unique opportunity to present an original play? No. It had been staged nationwide about 350 times in 1917 alone, so it had a successful track record. “America, Yesterday and Today” was written by Nina Lamkin, a physical education instructor at Northwestern University, author of pageants and Chautauqua lecturer. The script for the program is filled with short speaking parts in flowery language; many allegorical dance routines with specific instructions on the movements and spots where the town name could be inserted to give the production a local touch. Thirty-seven musical numbers are listed. The recommended cast could vary from as little as 80 to as high as 500 citizens. This generic pageant was in direct contrast to the July 1913 presentation that had eight scenes, many of them specific to Williston’s history, and probably written by Williston citizens.
The printed program for the Williston presentation included several paid advertisements, mainly from Burlington businesses. But two Williston firms were represented. One was C. G. Austin, Oak Hill Store that had “A variety of goods at the lowest possible prices to guarantee good quality,” where “Courtesy and Service [is] Our Motto.” The other Williston advertiser was J. R. Forville, in the Brick Store, who sold Diamond and Blackstone tires and Hood’s tennis wear and featured the sale and installation of Louden’s barn fixtures and Pine Tree milkers.
The Free Press estimated about 500 people attended the first night in perfect weather. The second night the Honorable James Hartness spoke. He was running for governor and paid tribute to the pioneer spirit in America, past and present. He cited the service of young men in World War I when they rose to the challenge. The Free Press noted that he “carefully refrained from any utterance that could be tortured into politics.” Dancing followed the program with music from a 10-piece orchestra from Sherman’s band.
Williston was not unique in its presentation of the two historic pageants in 1913 and 1920. The pageantry movement was in its heyday in the early 20th century as it was promoted by such diverse organizations as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Playground Association of America, and progressive educators like John Dewey. The push for such pageants was in part a reaction to the boisterous and unsafe celebrations that marked holidays in some cities where alcohol and fireworks took center stage. There was also an emphasis on recapturing the true meaning of American history by the more genteel groups that felt the lower classes were losing sight of the important reasons for such celebrations as Independence Day.
Pageants served a purpose in entertaining and educating the public, and imparting a feeling of pride and patriotism. As Lamkin stated in the foreword to the script, the themes of the pageant “strengthen community life…and build a stronger patriotic loyalty through binding together groups of people who have common interests.”
But usually the past was glorified and non-conforming truths ignored. For example the scene involving Indians is all peace, love, and gratitude for the bountiful corn harvest. No mention of disease, broken treaties, and forced relocation by the white man. Warfare with fellow tribes was all in the past.
The 1920s were a time of rapid change in the United States. Prohibition was underway and women had just received the right to vote. Automobile ownership was greatly increasing and modern forms of entertainment, such as radio programs and movies were making inroads, so tastes in leisure time activities were shifting. Historical pageants would not maintain the importance they held before World War I. In any event the Free Press saluted “the public spirited people of Williston…on their enterprise in providing for the presentation of spectacular community pageants.”