‘A delirium of joy.’ Modesto area welcomed World War I’s end a century ago Sunday

Exactly 100 years ago Sunday, an effigy of Kaiser Wilhelm burned on a Modesto street.

Thus did some of the townsfolk celebrate the end of World War I, as reported by the Modesto Evening News.

Germany surrendered to the United States and its allies on Nov. 11, 1918, near Compiègne, France. The armistice ended a four-year struggle that killed an estimated 8.5 million service members. The American forces lost 116,516 after entering the war in 1917, including 49 from Stanislaus County listed on a memorial outside today’s courthouse on I Street.

The local Elks lodge created the effigy of Wilhelm, the emperor of Germany, who had abdicated two days earlier. It was placed in a coffin and paraded to 11th and I streets. A mock trial resulted in burning from a 30-foot-tall scaffold.

Other Modestans were more subdued in welcoming the news, but they clearly were glad that it was over over there.

“All night long the crowd walked the streets in a delirium of joy at the triumph of the allies,” the Evening News reported “... There was a riot of color and sound and hilarity, and it all emanated from the heart filled with real joy.”

The initial story that day described it all.

“It was 11:19 last night when the flash came over the United Press special wire in the News office that the armistice had been signed. It was official.

“The News had an extra on the street in a few minutes containing the full story of the last act that brought the world war to a close. Meantime the glad tidings were phoned to Fire Chief Wallace at the Modesto fire department and the big official whistle at the city hall was set blasting the big news.

“Mingling with the first news were twenty-five shots fired from the News office in celebration and as a signal. ...”

(See our front page and Page 2 from 1918)

Nov. 11 became known as Armistice Day , in honor of the American and allied forces. Congress changed the name to Veterans Day in 1954 to include people who served in World War II and subsequent conflicts.

Modesto will hold its latest version of the celebration with a parade starting at 9 a.m. Sunday at 10th and O streets. It will proceed to Graceada Park, where a ceremony and other attractions are planned.

Online news was decades in the future when the armistice was reported by the Evening News. But the paper did boast about how fast it got word of the war’s end, thanks to its United Press telegraph line. The armistice took effect at 11 a.m. in the French time zone. Modesto is nine hours behind, so the news hit the streets in an “extra” in the dead of night.

Modesto in 1918 had about 9,000 residents and a diverse farming economy supported by new canals, canneries and railroads. That same Nov. 11 paper listed the prices farmers could get for several types of dry beans. An ad for the Modesto Hotel promised “no shivery mornings” thanks to its steam-heat system. Shoppers could get barracuda for 17 cents a pound at the Modesto Fish Market.

That also was the year of an influenza pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people around the world. The Evening News of Nov. 11 advertised a cure from the Poo On Chinese Herb Co. on Tenth Street.

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The Evening News would merge in 1925 with the Herald. The combined paper is now The Modesto Bee.

The armistice of 1918 required Germany to give up ships, planes and other military assets and to pay reparations. “Conquered nation stripped of power to make war again,” said the headline on a wire story in the Evening News.

We know how that went. Germany launched World War II in 1939, and it spread to the Japanese empire. The courthouse memorial bears the names of another 270 people from Stanislaus County who died.

John Holland covers breaking news and has been with The Modesto Bee since 2000. He has covered agriculture for the Bee and at newspapers in Sonora and Visalia. He was born and raised in San Francisco and has a journalism degree from UC Berkeley.