It was the most glorious late October day imaginable in Woodstock, Illinois yesterday. The sunshine was dazzling, the blue sky flawless, shirtsleeve temperature rose to the mid-70’s, fall foliage was in mid-display side by side with brilliant asters and mums with perfect pumpkins on display. The Square was bustling with browsers, shoppers, and vendors enjoying one of America’s greatest Farmer’s Markets as talented musicians entertained from the classic gazeebo. Old friends were encountered at every turn.
But what made the day not just special but extraordinary was the long awaited unveiling of the Illinois State Historical Society’s (ISHS) plaque commemorating Eugene V. Debs’s pivotal incarceration in the old McHenry County Jail overlooking the Square. The event was the result of years of effort by Kathleen Spaltro, Steve Avang, and other members of Woodstock Celebrates. To accomplish it in notoriously conservative and Republican McHenry County they had to overcome skepticism and some outright hostility to acknowledging in any way probably of Woodstock’s most important and significant historic connection.
Opposition came not only from those determined to block the recognition of a Red but from the skittish fundraisers of the Friends of the Old Courthouse, the non-profit charged with raising the hefty sums needed to complete restoration of the Old McHenry County Courthouse. They claimed the Historic Marker on the Jail would scare off deep pocket corporate donors.
|Gunner Gittlan, standing left, indroduces speakers in the Old Court House before the unveiling. (Mike Mallory, Northwest Herald)|
But in his remarks to a crowd jammed into a room in the Court House before the unveiling, I.S.H.S Executive Director William Furry said the Debs plaque is probably “the most significant historical marker his group will place in this century… There is no marker in the state of Illinois that says ‘socialist,’ But we have about 80 markers for [President Abraham] Lincoln – sleeping here, tipping his hat here. There’s a marker in southern Illinois that says, ‘Lincoln saw a bunch of people at the land office.’” This marker, he said, represents the Society’s determination to make Historic markers “more substantive and have much more to say about who we really are as a people.”
Although the Northwest Herald botched it in their otherwise fine coverage of the event, the McHenry County Federation of Teachers, Local 1642 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) which represents Woodstock District 200 teachers and staff and McHenry County College support staff came forward with a contribution that covered the cost of the plaque. By falsely claiming that funding came from Woodstock’s tax increment financing fund the paper fuels faux outrage by reactionaries. Union President Duane Pfeiffer proudly explained his organization’s gift.
Also delivering preliminary remarks were Tom Suhrbur, Vice President of the Illinois Labor History Society (ILHS) and Noel Beasley of the Eugene V. Debs Foundation.
Notably absent from the program and the unveiling were the Mayor, City Manager, or and Representatives of the City Council. These kinds of folks are usually Johnny-on-the-spot for feel-good photo ops of important civic occasions. Their absence was likely due to skittishness over fear of political fallout and pushback. At least one current Council member, Jim Prinville, a local real estate developer attended as a member of the audience but kept a low profile.
|The Sheriff's Office and Jail.|
After a brief program, we all went outside to unveil the black shrouded maker on the Jackson Street side of the Old Jail and Sheriff’s House. The ILSH’s Shurbur, ISHS’s Furry, Pfeiffer of the Teacher’s union, and sparkplug Kathleen Spaltro did the honors to cheers and applause. We all lingered in the street admiring the plaque, snapping photos, and congratulating the principals.
Nowhere to be found were any threatened protestors.
|The plaque in all of its glory.|
When we finally drifted away there was a two hour wait before a scheduled panel discussion at the Woodstock Public Library. I headed over to Swiss Maid Bakery on Benton Street for the best lunch deal around the Square—a super plump hot dog, small bag of chips, and a can of pop for three bucks and change. I took my feast to the Square where I sat in the sunshine in front of the Gazeebo listening to Andy Andrick and friends harmonize beautifully on great songs from my youth.
I wandered over for my first good look at the new Woodstock mural on the wall of the pedway alongside of the Woodstock Theater which connects a city parking lot with Main Street. Colorful panels represent the Groundhog Day film, Orson Welles, “Stars of the Opera House State, and local celeb Chester Gould and his creation, Dick Tracy. Cool and fun.
|The Groundhog Day panel of the new Woodstock mural.|
I stopped at D.C. Cobbs for a celebratory libation before a short stroll amid some of Woodstock’s finest painted lady Victorian homes on my way to the Library.
Due to my leisurely pace I arrived during Steve Avang’s portrayal of Sheriff George Eckert who was Deb’s jailer and became his life-long friend and admirer despite their obvious political differences. Noel Beasley put Deb’s experience with the Pullman Strike and Boycott into perspective including comparisons to the powerful forces arrayed against workers then and out current situation. Kathy Spaltro dived into the importance of the two historic Supreme Court cases involving Debs, their relationship to Free Speech, and in particular how the proceeding that led to his Woodstock jail time were a collusion between the powerful railroad barons, government, and the courts. Woodstock attorney Gunnar Gittlan provided a legal analysis of the case.
After the presentations, discussion was lively and well informed. I got to show off a little labor history trivia and bloviate more than necessary. Which made me happier than a pig in shit.
A good day indeed.