A century ago, Nov. 11 was a bittersweet day, full of tears, happiness and hope. Belton and Killeen held the day in reverence; Temple, not so much.
President Woodrow Wilson declared Nov. 11, 1919, as the first commemoration of Armistice Day, which was originally intended to involve parades and public meetings and a brief suspension of business beginning at 11 a.m.
Although World War I officially ended on June 28, 1919, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the fighting between the Allies and Germany had halted on this day in 1918 — on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Congress made Armistice Day a legal holiday in 1938, declaring it “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace.”
The 1919 observance seemed subdued, compared to the previous year, which was loud and raucous. The Telegram waxed poetic in 1918: “The whistles at the Santa Fe yards and roundhouse were pulled wide open, shattering the stillness of the peaceful morning air, penetrating even the remotest corners of the town, bringing to the eager ears of an aroused citizenship the overwhelmingly joyful news that … the World War was over.”
The Telegram continued: “Long, loud and insistent was the music of their call, thrilling the hearts of the listeners with ineffable joy and thanksgiving … One whistle wailed and moaned and sobbed, incessantly, plaintively, softly like the faint rustle of winds in the grasses on a deserted battlefield.”
Later in the day, the pastors of all Temple churches quickly assembled an interfaith program of thanksgiving.
However, for Bell County residents who had lost blood and treasure in the Great War, Nov. 11, 1919, was a different kind of observance. Most stores and schools closed. Churches throughout the county held services to honor the dead and give thanksgiving for those who could return.
Many Bell County men were caught up in patriotic fervor as the United States entered the war in April 1917. More than 1,100 men and women — white, African-American and Hispanic — hailed from Bell County, according to draft registration records in the Railroad and Heritage Museum’s archives. They were among the 198,000 Texans who served, and among the more than 5,000 who perished.
Bell County, too, paid a heavy price. In all, 17 Bell County men were killed in action, 12 died in accidents, 44 were wounded and five permanently disabled. Forty-two died of disease — mostly from the influenza pandemic of late 1918.
Many believed that treating the Armistice anniversary as an ordinary day would have been disrespectful. “Killeen closes tight on Armistice Day,” reported the Temple Daily Telegram, adding that every store except one closed at 1 p.m. on Nov. 10 and remained closed until 10 p.m. on Nov. 11.
“Last night, someone administered a coat of bright yellow paint to the store that didn’t close,” the paper reported. Yellow paint signified a household or business that didn’t support the war or respect Armistice Day observances.
Killeen residents made good use of the day off from work. “Everybody quit work and went hunting,” the Telegram reported. “Along about 10 o’clock a serious cigarette and Coca Cola shortage hit the town, but patriotism had the lid on tighter than ever before in this locality.”
Before it closed for the day, a Killeen drug store stacked daily newspapers on the outside with a sign saying, “Take your paper and pay us tomorrow.”
The Belton Retail Merchants Association also agreed to close businesses for the day. Streets in Belton “took on the aspects of scenes during the Christmas holidays, and throughout the day fireworks were heard,” the Telegram reported.
The day held special significance for many families celebrating their sons and daughters home from Europe. In their Holland home, Corelia Annie Rutland Taylor (1867-1950) and her husband, James Volney Cavitt (1861-1930), hosted a dinner party, honoring her son, Sheridan Duncan Cavitt (1894-1967) and several other returning soldiers.
However, some veterans felt that Temple’s observance was tepid. A delegation of former soldiers converged in the Telegram’s newsroom, “all of them in a grouchy mood,” the paper reported. “Several expressed themselves rather strongly.” The veterans argued that the city was not showing proper interest in Armistice Day.
“What’s the matter with folks in Temple?” said one former soldier who had lost a leg in France as angrily stamped his crutch on the floor. “He speeded up his speech and took trench after trench, exploding grenades about some of the merchants seeming to care more for the dollar than the victory of their armies,” the paper added.
The soldier was indignant, accusing Temple of being more interested in dollars rather than veterans. “The stores and even the schools fail to give a holiday. I wonder if all the people feel that way about it, or if it just some of the business men?” he asked.
The same issue of the Telegram reported that many stores, including grocers, closed at noon on Nov. 11 in observance of the Armistice anniversary, and those that remained opened unfurled flags. Drug stores and confectionaries closed all day, and only one garage remained open to sell gasoline. Banks closed all day.
The public schools held programs on phases of warfare and the fighting in France. Other speakers recalled the significance of the day and the importance of the Armistice.
Eventually as the century unfolded, Armistice Day became an honored day of remembrance filled with speeches, parades and patriotic gatherings. The observance was later renamed Veterans Day by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to honor veterans of all wars.