Saying the Right Thing
Some things, you would think, could be accomplished without controversy, simply as manifestations of community spirit. You would think so, but that’s not how it happened in Williston in 1927, when, somewhat belatedly, the town established a monument to remember those who had served in the Great War.
It started early in the year, when a number of civic organizations led by the Commercial Club same together and chose officers to start the movement for a monument. They commenced fundraising and also picked the site for the monument: a little park downtown right next to the Great Northern depot.
My knowledge of what happened here comes mainly from one of my fine seminar students, Ben Gjorven, who hails from Williston. He points out that the site chosen was symbolically ideal. When soldiers shipped off to war, they departed from the depot. When, God willing, they returned home, they were welcomed by family and friends at the depot. It was a natural site of remembrance. Besides, the Great Northern Railway agreed to ship and install the monument for free.
All went well right up until the day the six-foot-tall doughboy on a granite pedestal was to be dedicated—November 11, Armistice Day, of 1927. Funds had been secured and the monument been produced and installed with remarkable expedition.
The first thing that went wrong was the weather. Some 1000 citizens turned out for a parade down Main Street, at the south end of which stood the depot, and shivered in a cold wind. The town band marched but did not play on account of the cold—I suppose the brass players had some mouthpiece issues.
The real chill set in after the keynote speaker, a prominent local attorney named William G. Owens, launched into his address. It started out well enough, with the speaker honoring those of “the young manhood of our country” who had paid the ultimate price in its defense.
Then the speech took a nasty, partisan turn, as Owen used the occasion to denounce what he said were the “forces and agencies at work in a desperate attempt to wreck and destroy the government of our nation.” These unnamed forces became the subject of a prolonged rant by counselor Owen, during which the supreme sacrifices of the aforementioned patriotic young manhood were pretty much forgotten.
The back story to the incident was that Williams County was full of Norwegian farmers, many of whom were passionate supporters of the Nonpartisan League, whose program of cooperative and state initiatives challenged the power of old-line Republican conservatives such as Owen. It seemed more important to him to denounce the leaguers than to honor the war dead.
In 2003 local authorities moved the Great War monument to Riverview Cemetery and resituated it among other war memorials. This broke the line of remembrance specific to the depot location, but on the other hand, that end of Main Street had become a bit seedy.
“For God and Country: in honor of the boys of Williams County who made the supreme sacrifice in the World War 1914-1918”: the monument still says the right thing, long after the ill-tempered remarks from the day of its dedication are forgotten.