Illinois History

A Glimpse into the Summer of 2015

010I have been teaching for over 20+ years but this summer I get to do something few historians get to do – I get to catalog a farm museum. Located south of Belvidere, Illinois, the museum actually started out as a hobby of a local farmer. It began with a few pieces 20 years ago and now has morphed into three buildings of agricultural lore. From seed bags to seed corn signs to toys and even wagons, over one hundred and fifty years of American agriculture is told through the machines used to grow and make the food we eat. I estimate there are between 2000-3000 pieces in the museum.

Yesterday, the farmer had an open house, which he does once or twice a year in addition to hosting school groups. I strolled around the grounds, took some pictures, and talked to some members of the community where I teach. It was a good day, but I also got an idea of the enormity of the task which awaits me.

My tools for the summer will be a tape measure, a camera, and a laptop. When I am done, there will be over a thousand slides that look something like this:


It’s a big task. It might even be overwhelming. But it will be a fun task as I get to hear the stories behind each piece. Some people may make fun of the show American Pickers, but the people on the show truly do protect forgotten pieces of American history. And this museum, its owner, and its collection are pretty close to the people and places Mike and Frank see each week.

007To me, it is all about the stories behind the piece. That is what I look forward to most. I don’t know how long it will take me to catalog the three buildings. I really don’t care. It could be weeks, months, or even a couple of summers, but it something I think is important. My father, my maternal grandfather, and my uncle were all involved in agricultural. It is something that I think reminds me of them.

The blog this summer will post weekly updates with some items highlighted for their uniqueness or importance. The summer may go fast, but for this historian, it will be something few historians get to do.

History Project of the Day


Yesterday, my students participated in the Northern Region History Fair at NIU in DeKalb. This is one of my student’s projects. It is by an eighth grade boy, and I must say, I was impressed by his marriage of history and sport! He advanced, along with 21 more of my students, to the Illinois state history fair on May 7. Click on the picture to enlarge.

Ernie Banks – A True Pioneer


Ernie in his Kansas City Monarchs uniform

Ernie Banks was a true pioneer. Ernie helped paved the way for many African-American players in the Chicago Cubs organization. He also transformed the game. His quick swing through the batting zone allowed him to generate a lot of power. Before him, shortstop was seen as a defensive position filled with light hitting players. After Ernie’s career ended in the early 1970s, it would another ten years before another “power hitting shortstop” came along in Cal Ripken and more than ten years after that when Alex Rodriguez came along.

Born into poverty in Dallas, Texas in 1931, Ernie Banks was one of 12 children in his family.

“I enjoyed growing up in Dallas. Everything was within walking distance: the school I went to, the YMCA, my friends in the neighborhood, the park I played baseball on. Everybody knew everybody and kept everybody in line.”
Sports soon became his life. He was a three sport athlete at Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas. He played football, basketball, and track at the school. He never played baseball in high school.

However, sports did not make Ernie who he was. He was deeply religious and that side of him came directly from his mother’s influence. For a poor person, Banks said, “Your word is your bond. Things like that kind of stuck in my mind. I mean what I say, and I say what I mean.” And it was playing on his church softball team that his athletic skills were discovered first by Kansas City Monarchs Scout Bill Blair. Banks would begin his baseball career in 1950 with the Amarillo Colts. He did not play for them long as Cool Papa Bell and Buck O’Neil swayed Ernie to the Kansas City Monarchs later that same year. He wound up being drafted and serving in Germany during the Korean War.

Ernie's Scouting Report

Ernie’s Scouting Report

Upon his release in 1953, Ernie returned to the Monarchs. Later that fall, his contract was sold to the Chicago Cubs. He would be the first African-American to play for the team.

The shock of moving to a segregated city like Chicago was not lost on Banks. He said the following of the differences:
“You’ve got a lot of players from the South and very few blacks. It was not as multicultured as I had anticipated. They had a few players from Puerto Rico and from Latin American countries, but most of the players were from the South and West.”

Banks lived on the south side of town throughout most of the 50s before moving to the West Chesterfield neighborhood in the late 50s.

When Ernie stepped onto the field in 1953, there were only 20 other African-Americans on 7 other teams. But more than that, Ernie represented a new kind of player with Henry Aaron and Willie Mays – all three were players who combined speed with power. They revolutionized the game. And for Ernie, he revolutionized the shortstop position.

As a Cub, slugger Ralph Kiner took a liking to Ernie from the start. The two would often talk hitting and Ernie credits Kiner with helping Ernie to refine his own swing with quick wrists in order to see the ball deep in to the zone and to just react. Ernie Banks hit 40 home runs in a season in four consecutive years from 1957-1960. The 6’1” 185 lb. shortstop won two NL MVP awards in 1958 and 1959. One person quipped that without Ernie, the last placed Cubs “would have finished in Albuquerque.”

Everywhere Ernie went as a ballplayer, his race followed him. Ernie spoke eloquently of the dichotomy of his being an African-American pioneer in baseball:

“Some people feel that because you are black you will never be treated fairly and that you should voice your opinions, be militant about them. I don’t feel this way. You can’t convince a fool against his will. If a man doesn’t like me because I am black, that’s fine. I’ll just go elsewhere, but I’m not going to let him change my life […] As black athletes, if we speak on various issues, or wear our hair in certain ways, we are considered militant, in opposition to The Establishment, which put us in a position of being opposed to what gives us our livelihood. If we don’t speak up about racial issues, political matters, or the organization itself, we are called Uncle Toms.”
He knew he could not please everybody. So, Ernie was just himself.

In 1962, injuries began to take their toll on Ernie. He moved from shortstop to third base to left field before finally settling on a new position. For the last 9 years of his career he played first base.

Ernie never played in the post season. For 19 years he tried, for 19 years he never made it, but it was not for a lack of trying. The closest “Mr. Cub” came to the post season was in the legendary 1969 season where the Cubs blew a 10 game lead to the Mets in August and September. Along with the Ron Santo and Billy Williams, the trio endeared themselves to Cub fans everywhere.


As a pioneer of the position, Ernie was also a pioneer because of his attitude. His most well known saying is, “Let’s Play Two!” meaning to play a double-header. Throughout Chicago, Ernie’s positive mental attitude never wavered throughout his life. As great of baseball player as he was, he was even more of a gentleman. Everyone he met, he felt it was his duty to say something nice to them, to encourage them.

Playing baseball during a time of segregation did not leave Ernie bitter. He stayed at different hotels, rode different buses, lived in a different part of town, but it not did deter him from having positive attitude toward other human beings. Ernie said,

“There are certain things that you have to fight for, not by looting or burning, but by letting society know that you will demand your rights and will use every legal means to get them. I don’t agree with the guys that say in order to find pride in your blackness you have to hate everything that is white. That’s just plain wrong. We shouldn’t hate anybody. If you want to get a good job, or get into business, you’ve got to live with other people including the white ones.”

Ernie was an 11 time All-Star who played in 13 All Star games (some years they played two All-Star games a year) who finished with 512 Home Runs. His 500th home run turned into the one of the great calls in baseball television history.

In 1977, Ernie made into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

After his playing career ended, Ernie continued to be the face of the Cubs. He gave often to charities in the Chicago area and was a face in the community. He appeared at many baseball card conventions, Cub games, and Cubs Conventions. He became a mentor to many Cub players over the years including the current team.

The last time I saw him in person was at the Chicago Cubs Convention in 2014. When I heard he was not going to be attending the Convention of a week ago, I wondered about his health. I hoped that everything was alright. He passed away yesterday at age 83.

Most people will remember him for his infectious attitude and how he had a kind word for everyone. That he did do. However, the mark he left on the game is just as important as the mark he left off the field in transforming the game in the 1950s and 1960s. For every person that he ever touched with his smile and attitude, he touched just as many with his play. He made it possible for a power hitter to play shortstop. Ernie made it possible for Robin Yount, Cal Ripken, and Derek Jeter to transform shortstop from a defensive position into an offensive one. And he made it possible for an African-American player to be the face of a franchise in Chicago.

Ernie and Derek Jeter at Wrigley Field

Ernie and Derek Jeter at Wrigley Field

In 2013, Ernie was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. It is the highest award a citizen can earn in this country.

Ernie Block Quotes
Timothy J. Gilfoyle. “From Wrigley Field to Outer Space: Interviews with Ernie Banks and Mae Jemison.” Chicago History Magazine. Winter, 1988-89.

Lew Freedman (2007). African-American Pioneers. Greenwood Press: Westport Connecticut.

Using Baseball as a History Fair Topic – Instilling Changes

Baseball and history tend to go together. This blog is no different. As a practicing teacher whose students participate in the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency’s Student Historian Program (aka History Fair) and National History Day, I steer some reluctant kids towards baseball topics. It has worked and has changed lives. One of my most successful students did three baseball exhibits, two research papers, and one hockey exhibit over six years in route to six superior ribbons at the state history fair. He is now a sophomore in the honors program at Northern Illinois University and his work as a junior in high school can be read here. SAM_0643He spoke at a conference with me last fall and talked about how doing these projects made him a better student.

Choosing a baseball topic for a history fair project has many advantages. First, the use of newspapers and interviews as primary sources are great tools for any historian. Learning how to find information through these early accounts are exactly what historians do in researching any topic. Second, it teaches verb usage. Most of these accounts use verbs in the active tense. This creates a text that is more exciting, easy to read, and most importantly, makes the subject and writing come alive.

A third reason for using baseball as a history fair topic is that it teaches structure. Students learn how to organize information. They can organize their paper, board, website, or document chronologically, thematically, and statistically. With the plethora of sports statistic sites like Baseball Reference, Baseball Almanac, and Fan Graphs, it is easy for the student to acquire information and data to help prove their thesis. Whether it is numeric data, hitting charts, or hitting zones, the images can be  to cover a year, career, and any significant data stream the user requires or inputs.

The fourth, and maybe the most important, reason for choosing a baseball related topic is that the player or event showcases a change in American society that is reflected on the diamond. From the use of defense and pitching with Tinkers to Evers to Chance to the cheating and gambling industry of the White Sox Scandal to the creation of the Negro Leagues by Rube Foster, the history of baseball in Illinois shows the history of change in Illinois. One of the key aspects of grading any history fair project is can the student(s) show how their topic changed history. A baseball topic clearly does that using evidence over time.

Fifth, and most importantly for the student, it is fun. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I saw a student get excited about learning history by doing their history fair project about a baseball topic. Once that happens, the student is hooked and puts all their efforts into creating a product of which they are proud.


1937 Construction of the Wrigley Field Scoreboard

As a teacher who is retiring in the next 5-8 years, when I look back at all the successful baseball projects my students created, I get a little misty because the topics were monumental events or personalities in the game. Students assembled projects on Mordecai Three Finger Brown, Albert Spalding, Tinkers to Evers to Chance, the 1906 World Series, Rube Foster, Baseball in Rockford in the 1800s, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ron Santo, Bill Veeck, Margaret Donahue, 1937 Wrigley Field Changes, the 1907 – 1908 Cubs, The Rockford Peaches, The Chicago American Giants, Curt Flood and the Reserve Clause, and the first All-Star Game put together by Arch Ward.

With this year’s topics already selected, several students chose baseball topics for their websites or papers with Margaret Donahue being the most popular. The regional history fair is not until February 28, 2015. However, I have already started to cull some new topics and information for 2016 and will introduce a couple of new baseball topics.

First will be how baseball stadiums influence their teams. The focus will be on the old West Side Grounds and its mammoth 500 feet to center field design, the 1937 Wrigley Field changes, the old Comiskey Park, the Cell, and the new changes to Wrigley Field. It will be interesting to see if any student picks the topic or even just focuses in on one stadium (I would recommend the West Side Grounds). In fact, I might prefer they pick just one stadium so they can  go more in detail.

Old Hoss Radbourn

Old Hoss Radbourn

The second topic is a little more adult. Charles Radbourn was a pitcher for the Providence Grays in the 1880s. In 1884, he won 59 games as a starting pitcher. His prodigious events and life are chronicled in the spectacular book Fifty-Nine in ‘84 – Old Hoss Radbourn and Bare-Handed Baseball & the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had by Edward Achorn. I was also able to find some newspaper articles supplied by the Bloomington Pentagraph, Radbourn’s hometown in central Illinois. Combined with some PDF journal articles and the afore-mentioned websites, a student will not have any trouble finding information.

Here is your warning – Doing “Old Hoss” as a topic is reserved for the more mature student as “Old Hoss” lead quite a saucy life, and that is putting it mildly. I first became aware of the topic because I love baseball and I love Twitter. There is a Twitter account named @OldHossRadbourn, which I find hysterical at times. The account looks at modern day baseball through the eyes of “Old Hoss.” Needless to say, he does find their commitment and achievements lacking and paling in comparison to his. He was baseball’s first Ironman and his endurance, be it out of greed, stupidity, or pure genius, set one baseball record that will most likely never be broken. In reflecting on modern day baseball, Twitter’s @OldHossRadbourn does pinpoint the changes in the game and the changes in American society over the past 130 years. Those changes are essential to what a history fair project can do; it is just seen through the eyes of baseball.

Margaret Donahue: Changing the Business of Baseball

“Someone like Midge is an inspiration. It’s a thrill to learn more about her history.“ – Cubs President Tom Ricketts.[i]

Margaret Donahue is pictured here with season ticket orders in 1929, a concept she came up with.

Margaret Donahue is pictured here with season ticket orders in 1929, a concept she came up with.

For the better part of forty years, Margaret “Midge” Donahue changed the business of baseball through her actions. Miss Donahue was one of Major League’s baseball’s first female executives. Working alongside, William Veeck, Sr., and later the Wrigley family, Margaret transformed the crowd that came to see a game at Wrigley Field. Miss Donahue’s unique perspective on how fans should be able to see a game changed the clientele and business of baseball. Her actions still are effecting how executives run baseball clubs today.

The 1920s were a boom time for the United States economy. New inventions like the radio transformed how people could track their favorite sports teams. Women’s role in society greatly changed to new appliances which made house work easier and created more leisure time for the American family. In the workforce, most women worked in jobs that today would be thought of stereotypes – teacher, secretary, and nurses.

It was into this world that Margaret Donahue entered. Originally from rural Huntley, Margaret worked in a laundry during World War I and lost her job to a man at the war’s conclusion. To get back into the work force, Margaret placed an ad in the Chicago Tribune. She got eighteen offers, but she took the first offer place. She was hired by then Chicago Cubs President, William Veeck, Sr. to be a stenographer.[ii] Margaret said,

“I declined the job (but William Veeck) offered me far more than what I was making (at a laundry supply company) and persuaded me to take it. At the end of the season, I tried to quit again but he countered by making my hours 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and I stayed.”[iii]

Margaret quickly worked her way up the company ladder. She moved from stenographer to handling ticket receipts, checking the receipts against the turnstile counts, and paying visiting clubs.[iv] In the 1920s, baseball had a few women in positions of power.[v] A few were owners who inherited the team from their late husbands or fathers.

In 1926, Veeck shocked the baseball world by appointing Margaret Executive Secretary of the Chicago Cubs. The Board of Directors of the franchise approved her appointment. Veeck said of Margaret’s talents: “We feel that in Miss Donahue we have added a real asset to our club organization.” [vi]

Here is Margaret and William Veeck, Sr. in an ad for Quaker Oats

Here is Margaret and William Veeck, Sr. in an ad for Quaker Oats

In 1929, Margaret transformed the economic landscape of baseball three times. First, she came up with the idea of season tickets. Donahue got the idea after watching people save seats for their friends and families. Her niece later said, ““She was upset because they’d save tickets, people didn’t show up and that was a waste.” The season tickets plan was a huge success! The Cubs lead the National League in attendance in 1929 drawing 1.4 million fans.[vii] Fans rushed to get tickets to fill up the stadium by reserving seats. Today, season tickets are one of the main sources of income along with media revenue for ball clubs.

Margaret continued her unique vision to create a livelier ballpark to attend. She began selling regular game tickets using Western Union. This meant that fans could be assured of a ticket to the game without having to come to the ballpark to be guaranteed of getting a ticket.

The third aspect that Margaret always worked hard for was the children. She got Veeck to sell reduced prices for tickets for children.[viii] Earlier in 1919, Veeck had come up with the idea of Ladies Days to increase the attendance of women to the ballpark. Combined with Veeck’s idea, Margaret changed who saw baseball games. Baseball was now more of a family affair. Margaret always said, “I was trained by Mr. Veeck to do my best to make customers leave the ballpark happy, no matter what happens.”[ix] Author Paul Dickson said of the changes, “Teams like the Dodgers are worth $2 billion because people like Midge and the Veecks determined that the ballpark is for families. Before them, baseball parks were filled with men in white shirts.” [x]

In 1929, the Cubs had a great season reaching the World Series before losing 4 games to one to the Philadelphia Athletics. It was also the year of the Stock Market Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Despite the hard times, the Cubs thrived in the 1930s thanks in part to the crowds that filled Wrigley Field because of the ticket changes Margaret and Mr. Veeck made. The Cubs would make three more appearances in the World Series in the 1930s.

In 1933, Mr. Veeck passed away suddenly. She helped to run the team after the death of William Veeck, Sr.[xi] Under the Wrigley family she continued her duties.[xii] Chicago Baseball Museum executive director David Fletcher said, “They should have made (Donahue) the club president in the 1930s. If they did that, they (the Cubs) probably would have avoided their downfall.” [xiii] boss

Veeck’s son, William Veeck, Jr., who later would own the Indians and White Sox, learned a lot from Margaret. He said in his autobiography, “(Donahue is) as astute a baseball operator as ever came down the pike. She has forgotten more baseball in her 40 years with the Cubs than most of the so-called magnates will ever know.”[xiv] Before the 1937 season, the Cubs and Veeck, Jr. planted ivy on the outfield wall and built the now iconic bleachers. But on the field, the Cubs started to decline with their play on the field. Margaret said,

“I believe we fell behind the parade because we didn’t go into the farm business soon enough. Late in the ’30s, when others were developing their players, we were still trying to buy them. And we also refused to pay bonuses until recently.”

Now working for the Wrigley family, the Cubs and Margaret worked to continue to provide a great product for fans to come and see. Playing baseball under the lights became popular for many team in the Great Depression. It was one way that fans could work during the day and then attend a night game and not miss any work during the day. So, before World War II, Margaret ad other Cubs executives attended a White Sox night game to see how lights affected the quality of the product baseball.[xv] After the attack at Pearl Harbor, President William Wrigley donated the metal frames for the lights to help the war effort.

Margaret continued working for the Cubs through 1958. When she retired she was given a golden pass to attend any National League Game free of charge. Her greatest accomplishment, according to her nieces, was how she made the ballpark a family place.[xvi] Current Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts said, “Some of those ideas that came from her made her doubly remarkable. Her story is an inspiration. And the fact that she accomplished what she did almost 100 years ago makes it truly remarkable and impressive.” [xvii]

Margaret Donahue’s life is an inspiration. As a woman, she succeeded in an era when men dominated the business and the sport. Her ideas about season tickets and how the ballpark should be a place for more than just men is still having a huge effect on the business of baseball today. Baseball is now played in stadiums that dwarf those of the 1920s and 1930s. Filling up those stadiums are families. That is how Margaret Donahue saw what baseball could be, a place where the family could have a good time watching a game. She was decades ahead of her time. In the summer of 2014, the Chicago Cubs donated over $1 million to a park to be named in Margaret’s honor.[xviii] Now, her achievements are noticed and put on a display for a whole new generation.

Margaret's Golden Ticket to any National League Game

Margaret’s Golden Ticket to any National League Game


[i] Owens, John. “Pioneering Female Exec Midge Donahue to Be Honored. “ Chicago Tribune. May 2, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:

[ii] Dickson, Paul. (2012). “Margaret Donahue: First Lady of the Front Office.” Accessed Online at: October 15, 2014.

[iii] “New Cubs Secretary.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Dec 14, 1926; pg. 23.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Baseball Men Beware! Women Prove They Can Run a Team.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Apr 20, 1941; pg. B3.

[vi] Castle, George. (July 2, 2013). “Cubs’ Donahue far ahead of her time as baseball’s first female executive.” Chicago Baseball Museum. Accessed online November 17, 2014 at:

[vii] Owens, John. “Female Cubs executive left her mark on the big leagues. “ Chicago Tribune. June 22, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:

[viii] Dickson, Paul. (2012). Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick. Walker and Company: New York. 21.

[ix] Castle, George. (July 2, 2013). “Cubs’ Donahue far ahead of her time as baseball’s first female executive.” Chicago Baseball Museum. Accessed online November 17, 2014 at:

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Vaughan, Irving. “CUBS TAKE TIME IN SELECTING NEW PRESIDENT: May Not Decide on Veeck Successor.” Chicago Daily Tribune. Oct 10, 1933; pg. 23.

[xii] “Wrigley, Entire Staff Re-elected at Cub Meeting.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Jan 13, 1938; pg. 19.

[xiii] Owens, John. “Female Cubs executive left her mark on the big leagues. “ Chicago Tribune. June 22, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:

[xiv] Dickson, Paul. (2012). Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick. Walker and Company: New York. 21.

[xv] Prell, Edward. “Cub Officials See Sox Play Under Lights.” Chicago Daily Tribune; Aug 15, 1939; pg. 15.

[xvi] Castle, George. (2013). Chicago Baseball Museum. Margaret Donahue: Baseball’s First Female Executive. Accessed Online November 23, 2014, at:

[xvii] Owens, John. “Female Cubs executive left her mark on the big leagues. “ Chicago Tribune. June 22, 2104. Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:

[xviii] Owens, John. (2013). “Aunt Midge – A Wrigley Field Innovator.” Accessed Online, November 30, 2014 at:

The Art of Getting Bogged Down – Every History Teacher’s Nightmare and Pleasure

Here is the cartoon that starting it all this morning. It is from the magazine Puck and is about John D. Rockefeller's control of the economy in the late 1800s.

Here is the cartoon that starting it all this morning. It is from the magazine Puck and is about John D. Rockefeller’s control of the economy in the late 1800s.

I am a tactile teacher. I like my students to do things with their hands, mostly by recreating and analyzing history. I like them to create products which analyze the past, compare it to the present, and signify its importance to the development of our political, economic, and social constructs. As with every teacher, I always run into problems. And it is the same problem I run into all the time. I can easily get “bogged down” in a unit. By bogged down I mean I extend the unit and the tactile learning too much. What is supposed to be a three to four week unit ends up six, or even seven. Projects and products filled with pictures, cartoons, graphs, artifacts, and charts fill up my table in the back of my classroom. Added lessons are made up at the drop of a hat – it is a vicious cycle of lesson planning. But it is always a pleasurable one.

I know teachers who spend an entire quarter on the Progressive Era. I, myself, taught an Early America Unit for six weeks because I got stuck in the 1830s and 1840s teaching about Illinois’ role in westward expansion and the problems it faced. “I have to teach about the Black Hawk War for a week” or “These kids have to know about Mormon persecution in Missouri at Hahn’s Mill and at Nauvoo, Illinois” are the kinds of thoughts that run through my mind.

Other teachers I know spend an entire week on Tammany Hall or the cartoons of Puck vs. Nast. Last year, my student teacher took six weeks to do the Civil War. She did an excellent job actually making the kids hard tack, learning the roles of several women, teaching how culture spread across country because of the war, making exhibit boards, and digging into the Emancipation Proclamation in addition to normal things teachers go into detail about the time period. She expressed a concern at one point that she was never going to get out of the Civil War. She did. And, she did a great job teaching the unit!!! But when it came time to plan the next unit, the next unit got shortchanged. And thus is the dilemma of being a history teacher.

Currently I am at the crossroad as I type. At some point in the next week, I have to get into the twentieth century in class. As I sat down this morning, my main goal was immediately sidetracked by Puck cartoons. That’s right, cartoons. I love cartoons because of their tactile and visual nature. Almost immediately, I began scheming lessons about using them as web searches, products, and tools for analysis. I was supposed to teach about Immigration in the late 1800s to start the week and then get into 3 day Teddy Roosevelt extravaganza of the Progressive Era. I still will, but it is unreal how close I came to veering out of control.

I think for every history teacher, it is a guilty pleasure to get bogged down. It is how you become a better teacher. It is how you learn how to teach history. This year, I took five days to do the Battle of Gettysburg. And you know what, I enjoyed it, the kids enjoyed it, and we both learned a lot. However, here’s the thing…I planned to get bogged down!!! At times, getting bogged down is a necessity. That is how you teach detail. “More on less” is the best motto. The issue is that I teach a survey course and I have to cover all of US History in the time frame imposed. It is just not possible in one year to cover EVERYTHING.

I spent an entire lesson about Gettysburg by examining the decisions by Lee and Meade on whether to fight on that third day.

I spent an entire lesson about Gettysburg by examining the decisions by Lee and Meade on whether to fight on that third day. It was all about strategy and high ground. Students had a great time examining documents, the terrain, morale, and the state of their armies.

So, I pick and choose what I get bogged down in. This year, it will be Civil Rights in the 1950s and the Clinton era 1990s. I have no shame in admitting that. But some things do get shortchanged. I know this year it has been Reconstruction, the Wild West (an all-time favorite era of mine to get bogged down in), the Spanish-American War, and the early 1800s (1812-1837) that take the hit for detail’s sake.

I think it is important that if you are going to teach something and have students produce products of their learning, the teacher best enjoy the topic and transmit that joy to the students about the topic. Last year, I never had so much fun teaching about World War II than spending an entire week doing D-Day. Another teacher who read this blog emailed me for the materials and we both had a blast doing the lesson 300 miles apart with me in 8th grade and she in high school. It’s OK to get bogged down, if you do it for the right reasons!!!

So, when I get back to lesson planning here in a few minutes, I will try to avoid the pitfalls of the Progressive Era planning and yearn for the time when I do get to spend extra time teaching the 1930s, D-Day, the 1950s Civil Rights Movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the 1990s changes in society. It will be worth getting bogged down. I just have to stick to my plan.

Stumbling Through the Barrios – Part Two: The Wilson Administration in Mexico

From October 12 to November 12 of 1914, the Mexicans held a conference in Aguascalientes. Comprised mainly of the generals from the warring factions, they hoped to achieve the formation of a provisional government. An alliance between Villa and Zapata spurred the country back into civil war. A provisional president, Eulalio Gutierrez, came out of Aguascalientes. This did not sit well with Carranza. When the convention ended, Carranza fled to Vera Cruz with Obregon in tow, and Villa took Gutierrez to Mexico City.

By November 23, the United States had vacated Vera Cruz. This important fact allowed Carranza to collect import duties to help rebuild his forces for the approaching war. Carranza tried to run a government out of Vera Cruz. On January 6, 1915, Carranza issued amendments to the Plan de Guadalupe. The revisions included land reform, electoral reform and worker’s rights.

On January 8, 1915, Wilson gave a speech at a Jackson Day celebration in Indianapolis. In this speech Wilson set policy towards Mexico for 1915. He declared:

“It is none of my business, it is none of yours, how they go about their business. The country is theirs, the government is theirs, their liberty is theirs… and, so far as my influence goes while I am President, nobody shall interfere with them.”[i]

Although Wilson spoke in terms of non-US intervention, the events of 1915, and those of 1914 and 1915, clearly indicate that Wilson tried to influence behavior south of the border.

President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson

On January 15, General Alvaro Obregon began the Constitutionalist campaign against Villa and Zapata. The only dealings between Wilson and Carranza at this point concerned the treatment of the Catholic Church. During the US occupation of Vera Cruz, the city became a haven for priests and nuns throughout Mexico. They had come to Vera Cruz fleeing the persecution of encroaching rebel forces. The city provided them with an escape route or sanctuary. Wilson wanted to insure their lives while Carranza remained in Vera Cruz. Carranza gave in for the time being, but his anti-clerical position would come into play in 1916.

In April of 1915, Obregon delivered a crushing blow to Villa at the city of Celaya. Obregon’s Constitutionalist troops consisting of 13,000 men defeated Villa’s Division of the North with 20,000 men. The key to victory concerned the use of techniques used in trench warfare. A German military advisor, Maximilian Kloss, counseled Obregon on the use of the tactics. Using barbed wire and machine guns, Obregon reached an easy victory.[ii]

Carranza’s power began to strengthen throughout Mexico. Villa retreated to his native state of Chihuahua with the remainder of his army. Constitutionalist forces forced Zapata back into his home state of Morelos. Carranza’s legions controlled the railroads, communications, and all of central Mexico. Special agent Duval West reported on the aftermath of the rebellion. On July 2, West concluded that Mexico was a deprived nation. The crops had been destroyed as a result of the revolt. The fields remained unseeded and the cattle industry had been devastated.[iii]

Wilson could no longer sit inactively by and watch Mexico be destroyed. World War I now raged on the lands and seas of Europe. Mexico had to be resolved so Wilson could concentrate on Europe. John Lind urged Wilson to recognize Carranza after Celaya but to no avail. On July 2, Wilson privately said, “I have never known a man more impossible to deal with on human terms than this man Carranza.”[iv] At this point, Wilson had a clear distinction of a moral obligation to the people of Mexico.

In a twist of fate that May, a German U-boat sank the cruise ship Lusitania. In a division of policy, Wilson took a pro-ally stance. This breach of neutrality resulted in William Jennings Bryan resigning as Secretary of State. On January 9, Wilson designated Robert Lansing to be the new Secretary of State. Lansing, a pro-ally like Wilson, had definite ideas to help Wilson end the situation in Mexico. This would allow Wilson to devote himself to Europe.

On August 5 and 6, Lansing first met with the A.B.C. Powers in a series of conferences. These conferences resulted in the recognition of Carranza on October 18. Wilson and Lansing both thought of the troubles in Mexico as behind them. General Hugh Lenox Scott, the Army Chief of Staff, thought otherwise. Scott thought “the recognition of Carranza had the effect of solidifying the power of a man who had rewarded us with kicks on every occasion and making an outlaw out of the man who had helped us.”[v] Scott was speaking of Pancho Villa. On October 31, Villa learned of the recognition from a newspaperman.[vi] Villa demanded the United States pay him for protecting American lives and property. The United States government gave him nothing.

Carranza concentrated on solidifying his power the next four months. Wilson’s eyes turned to Europe. The Mexican problem remained far from over. Carranza’s stance of Mexican self-determination had served him well as a rebel. He had rebuked the Wilson administration at every turn in his rise to power. Relations at this time had not developed any further. Carranza’s anti-clerical decrees separating the Catholic Church from the state further exacerbated the difficult relations. Wilson was chastised by several US Catholic leaders, most notably Francis Kelly, to intervene on behalf of the Catholic Church. Wilson could only plead to Carranza. As 1916 arrived, Wilson would need Catholic support in his re-election bid.

Pancho Villa and what is left of his Division of the North

Pancho Villa and what is left of his Division of the North

Pancho Villa stole the spotlight from both Wilson and Carranza in 1916. On January 11, Villa’s remaining band attacked a train near Santa Isabel, Mexico killing 16 American passengers. This event received little attention from Wilson but it proved to be a harbinger of things to come. In the early morning hours of March 9, Pancho Villa crossed the border into New Mexico. At the city of Columbus, Villa’s band attacked, ravaged, and burnt part of the town killing fifteen and wounding seven others.[vii]

Villa’s band of some 500 men met some resistance by U.S. forces under the command of Colonel Herbert Slocumb. They managed to kill 100 of Villa’s men and find two wallets that belonged to Pancho Villa. The wallets contained papers linking Villa to the Santa Isabel murders and a declaration of war against the United States from December of 1915.[viii]

By 4 p.m. of the day, Wilson had made up his mind on the appropriate response. “An adequate force will be sent at once in pursuit of Villa with the single objective of capturing him and putting a stop to his forays.”[ix] Wilson came to this decision after meeting with Secretary of War Newton Baker, Army Chief of Staff Hugh Lenox Scott, and Wilson’s personal Chief of Staff, Joseph Tumulty. The chain of command took effect with the call going out to Brigadier General John J. Pershing to lead the expedition. In a letter to Pershing on March 11, Scott ordered that the troops be withdrawn as soon as the de facto government of Mexico relieved them of this work.[x] Wilson again used for to achieve his goal. Although limited, as with Vera Cruz, the armed forces became the means to achieve political goals. Wilson could ill afford to have hostilities along the U.S. border with the 1916 election only seven months away. US citizens had to feel safe in their own country.

As with every other decision he had made, Wilson had deep moral reservations. In speaking with Joseph Tumulty, Wilson would say:

“I have to sleep with my conscience in these matters and I shall be held responsible for every drop of blood that may be spent in the enterprise of this intervention. I am seriously considering every phase of this difficult matter, and I can frankly say to you, and you may inform the cabinet officers who discuss it with you, that there won’t be any war with Mexico if I can prevent it, no matter how loud the gentlemen on the hill yells for it and demands it.” He would later say in the same conversation, “I will not resort to war with Mexico until I have exhausted every means to get out of this mess. I know they will call me a coward or a quitter but that will not disturb me. Time, the great solvent, will, I am sure, vindicate this policy of humanity and forbearance. Men forget what is at the back of this struggle in Mexico. It is the age long struggle of a people to come into their own, and while we look upon the incidents in the foreground, let us not forget the tragic reality in the background which towers above this sad picture. The gentle men who criticize me speak as if America was afraid to fight Mexico, poor Mexico, with its pitiful men, women, and children fighting to gain a foothold in their own land.”[xi]

Wilson had come to understand the Mexican situation but felt that he could be of little help to the Mexican people. His duty as President concerned protecting the lives of American citizens. A greater call of humanity had to take a backseat in his administration’s policy towards Mexico.


On March 15, Pershing crossed into Mexico with 4800 men and 4175 animals. Pershing also had eight airplanes to use in his pursuit of Villa.[xii] Wilson put strict limitations on the US forces. They could not use the Mexican railways to advance or use Mexican towns as campsites. Wilson’s reasoning being that the two factors would indicate an occupying or invasionary force.

The United States failed to get permission from Carranza for the expedition. At the time, military commanders on both sides had agreed that either side could pursue bandits 15 leagues (45 miles) on either side of the border.[xiii] This expedition stretched further than 15 leagues. Carranza met with John Silliman and John W. Belt met with Foreign Affairs Minister Jesus Acuna. Carranza and Acuna felt they had achieved some sort of victory in Villa’s raids. Villa’s raid meant that the Constitutionalists and is a testament to their power and control. On the other hand, they did not appreciate American forces on their Mexican soil. Carranza told Silliman that he sent General Gutierrez with Constitutionalist troops after Villa. Negotiations soon began on the terms of the US expedition.

By March 18, Pershing drove 85 miles into Mexico. The negotiations had failed. Carranza would allow a force of 1000 men with a time limit of eight days. These troops could only go 40 miles into Mexico. The position that Wilson wanted “is to cooperate with the forces of General Carranza in removing a cause of irritation to both governments and to retire from Mexico as soon as this object is accomplished.”[xiv] There did not exist any cooperation according to Pershing. Pershing felt that “Carranza had no more control of what happened on the border than if he lived in London.”[xv] Pershing would later say the restrictions placed upon him related to “to a man looking for a needle in a haystack with an armed guard standing over the stack forbidding you to look in the hay.”[xvi]

For the remainder of March and the early part of April, the Pershing expedition went without incident. It did not clash with Villa or the Constitutionalist troops. It appeared to be on a wild goose chase. On April 13 a scout force under the command Major Frank Tomkins encountered a mob at the city of Parral. Two US casualties resulted from the incident. Carranza reiterated his stance of American withdrawal before incidents more serious than this occur. Robert Lansing replied that the troops would soon be withdrawn “as soon as the mission is accomplished.”[xvii] Tensions escalated between the two governments with neither side giving in.

In the first of two conferences, General Scott met with General Obregon on April 28. The first conference turned into a failure. Scott proposed cooperation in making a Villa sandwich. The US would be the bread coming down from the North and the Constitutionalists would be the bread coming in from the South. Obregon only wanted the withdrawal of US forces and the safety of the border. The first conference broke off but it eased tensions a little bit. The second night began as a midnight meeting on May 2. It would last until May 9. The two men agreed that Mexico would protect its side of the border. The second part called for the gradual withdrawal of Pershing’s forces.

It appeared as though a settlement had been reached. During the conference, two more raids took place in Texas. Neither were by Villa or his men. The first occurred at Glen Springs, the second at Baquilas. These events fuel to the fire of a bad situation. The Mexican government took a different approach this time. It took a month but on June 12 Constitutionalist forces captured Louis de la Rosa and his band of 40 men. It looked like the situation had started to turn.

On June 21, an incident occurred near the town of Carrizal. US forces clashed with Constitutionalist troops. The Constitutionalist took 23 Americans prisoner. The threat of war increased as Wilson previously called up the National Guard on June 18 in response to the Glen Springs raid. 125,000 sat north of the border waiting for their orders from Wilson. Communiqués went back and forth from Washington to Mexico City in an attempt to prevent further hostilities. To solve the problem, Carranza proposed a Mexican-American Conference.

The conference finally began in New London, Connecticut in September of 1916. The American delegation put its proposal on the table first. Represented by Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, Dr. John R. Mott, and L.S. Rowe, the US wanted protection of life and property on the border and in Mexico, a call for a claims commission, and religious tolerance in Mexico. The Mexican delegation only wanted the withdrawal of the expedition.

Talks broke off early before they resumed in October in Atlantic City. Mexico restated it position for withdrawal. The US had changed its position. Franklin Lane tried to Mexico to concede to Wilson’s demands by threatening to withdraw recognition of Carranza’s government. In November, the two sides reached an agreement that Carranza would later refused to sign.

Meanwhile, back in Mexico, a constitutional convention took place in Queretaro. The convention resulted in a new Mexican constitution. It put Carranza firmly in the driver’s seat in Mexico. Many questions still remained about the Mexican situation at the end of 1916. Pershing’s troops still remained in Mexico. Pancho Villa started acting up. The biggest area of concern was how the new constitution would affect Mexican-American relations.

On January 25, 1917, Pershing’s troops began the march northward to the United States. The intervention had been a debacle. Villa still remained at large and in a state of mind the Mexicans called “delirio de grandesa” or delirium of greatness.[xviii] The expedition failed not only in its concept but managed to strain relations between the two countries.

“When the true history is written, it will not be a very inspiring chapter for school children, or even grownups to contemplate. Having dashed into Mexico with the intention of eating the Mexicans raw, we turned back at the first repulse and are now sneaking home under cover, like a whipped curr with its tail between its legs.” ~ General John J. Pershing

“When the true history is written, it will not be a very inspiring chapter for school children, or even grownups to contemplate. Having dashed into Mexico with the intention of eating the Mexicans raw, we turned back at the first repulse and are now sneaking home under cover, like a whipped curr with its tail between its legs.” ~ General John J. Pershing

The new Mexican constitution went into effect on January 31 1917. Three articles of the Constitution concerned the Wilson administration. Article 3 called for a free education. It literally shut the Catholic Church out of the system. Article 27 caused more controversy. It included land reform, but more importantly, it claimed that sub-soil rights belonged to the nation. The meaning of this is that Mexico nationalized it oil, copper, and other minerals. It appeared that way on the surface, but in reality, the Mexican government could dispose and distribute these minerals any way it saw fit. This meant that foreign companies could run the mines and oil wells but not own them.[xix] Article 130 prohibited the Catholic Church from criticizing the government.

Wilson dealt with Carranza mainly on Article 27. Wilson wanted the Mexican government to buy the wells and mines from the foreign owners. At this time, Wilson did not have any leverage with which to persuade Carranza.

Wilson would later in 1917 freeze Mexico’s gold reserves in hopes of changing Carranza’s mind. In order to do that, Wilson had to first formally recognize the new government and its constitution. On March 11, the Mexican people officially elected Carranza as President. Henry Fletcher presented his credentials as US Ambassador to Mexico on March 13. Ygnacios Bonillas arrived as the Mexican Ambassador to the United States on April 17. With formal diplomatic ties in place, Wilson placed himself in a much better position to dictate what went on inside Mexico.

A few weeks earlier, the United States had declared war on Germany. The Mexican oil fields would be crucial to a victory for either side. Corruption still ran rampant in Mexico. The oil fields in the state of Huasteca Veracruzana were under the control of General Manuel Palaez. He leased oil fields to companies for $35,000 a year.[xx] Palaez circumnavigated Carranza’s policy and padded his own pockets in the process.

Mexican oil financed the revolution. By 1914, Mexico produced 26 million barrels a day. By 1918, production increased 250% to 63 million barrels a day. Too crude to be used directly by foreign companies, the oil of Mexico went to the US to be refined by US companies. In order to keep Carranza out of his little enterprise, Palaez blew up bridges and railway tracks so the Constitutionalists could not get the oil rich state.[xxi]

Wilson began using diplomatic measures at a greater rate in April. In hopes of this, Wilson wanted Mexico at peace while he fought with Germany. In March, a Paris newspaper released a copy of the Zimmerman Telegram. The United States previously received the note in February. German Minister Arthur Zimmerman wrote the note to Carranza urging an alliance between Germany and Mexico. If Germany won the war, Mexico would gain back territory lost to the US in the Mexican-American War in 1848. Wilson let the note be published in hopes of causing anti-German sentiment around the world. Wilson did not use the note in negotiations with Carranza. However, in April, Carranza declared Mexico’s neutrality in World War I to the Mexican Congress.

As the war developed in Europe, Secretary of State Robert Lansing wanted the US to occupy the oil fields. Wilson said no.[xxii] Wilson, on the other hand, did not have any intention of letting Mexico implement the new constitution.[xxiii] In addition to freezing Mexico’s gold reserves, Wilson used other ways to make Carranza tow the line to Wilson’s policies. Wilson held up needed supplies and ammunition at the border. Carranza still had insurgencies to deal with. In writing to Wilson, Carranza began each letter with the heading, “Great and Good Friend.”[xxiv] This did not do any good. Wilson suspended loans until Carranza swug around to Wilson’s way of thinking. Wilson then used Mexico’s oil to help achieve victory in World War I and allow foreign interests in Mexico.

While Carranza succeeded in defeating Wilson as a revolutionary, Carranza could not match up to Wilson as a president. Carranza died at the direction of Alvaro Obregon in March of 1920. Obregon had driven Carranza from office because Carranza let foreign interests back into Mexico. Obregon also ordered the murder of Zapata in Chinameca in 1919. Villa lasted until his assassination in 1923 in Parral. Obregon would be the President of Mexico from 1920 to 1924.

The Mexican Revolution developed into the first great revolution of the twentieth century. Wilson had the distinct challenge to protect the United States. Wilson’s unique policies failed until 1917. Due in part to the special agents he sent, but more for his moral obligation of self-determination. He replied in 1915 that “Mexico must be handled with Velvet gloves.” His advisors felt otherwise. Colonel Edward House saw Mexico as needing intervention. He remarked on one occasion, “We should Mexico very much as we have Cuba and for the same reasons.”[xxv] House referred to the Platt Amendment, a result of the Spanish-American War, which enabled the US to oversee the Cuban economy. House would later say, “If a man’s house is on fire, he should be glad to have his neighbors come and put it out, provided they did not take his property, and it should be the same way with nations.”[xxvi] Wilson did not agree. He tried to let Mexico solve its own problems.

Secretary of State Robert Lansing remarked upon taking office that “there were too many players in Mexico.”[xxvii]    With Huerta, Villa, Zapata, Carranza, the Catholic Church, and the foreign business community, there developed too many variable to try and control. This became the main thrust of “watchful waiting.” Wilson tried to keep abreast of the situation through the use of special agents, but they only confused Wilson. Conflicting reports from the agents made it more difficult to develop a policy in 1913 and 1914. So Woodrow Wilson would wait.

Wilson’s moral reservation throughout the whole dilemma developed from the fact that he wanted to help the Mexican people. He had to wait. When someone came out on top, he would deal with them at that time. It may not have been the politically correct thing to do, but for Wilson, it remained the human and moral thing to do. Throughout the revolution, change in the revolution changed Wilson’s policy. He pronounced in 1915 that “I am willing to get anything for an American that money and free enterprise can obtain, except the suppression of the rights of other men.”[xxviii] With his special agents in the barrios of Mexico, forces in Vera Cruz, the expedition of Pershing, Wilson gambled in his pursuit of stability and order south of the border. All the while, he held firmly to his moral belief and tried to cheat the irony of fate.


Read Part One:



[i] Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 32, 38-39.

[ii] Eisenhower, 176.

[iii] Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 33, 303.

[iv] Cumberland, 277.

[v] Eisenhower, 186.

[vi] Arthur S. Link, Ed. Wilson Confusion and Crises 1915-1916. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1964), 196.

[vii] P. Edward Haley. Revolution and Intervention: The Diplomacy of Taft and Wilson in Mexico 1910 – 1917. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1970), 188.

[viii] Link, Wilson Confusion and Crises 1915-1916, 206.

[ix] Haley, 188.

[x] Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 36, 285-286.

[xi] Tumulty, 157-158.

[xii] Herbert Malloy Mason, Jr. The Great Pursuit (new York, New York: Random House, 1970), 84.

[xiii] Link, Wilson Confusion and Crises 1915-1916, 96.

[xiv] Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 36, 332.

[xv] Mason, 169.

[xvi] Calhoun, 57.

[xvii] Haley, 199.

[xviii] Link, Wilson Confusion and Crises 1915-1916, 206.

[xix] Daniel James, Mexico and the Americans (New York, New York: Frederich Praeger Inc., 1963), 181.

[xx] E. David Cronon, Ed. The Cabinet Diaries of Josephus Daniels 1913-1921 (Lincoln, Nebraska: The Universiy of Nebraska Press, 1963), 43.

[xxi] Brown, 122, 201.

[xxii] Haley, 259.

[xxiii] Link, Woodrow Wilson and a Revolutionary World 1913-1921, 23.

[xxiv] Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United State 1917, (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1926), 939, 1014, 1080-1082.

[xxv] ,The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 33, 420.

[xxvi] Mark T. Gilderhus. Pan-American Visions: Woodrow Wilson and the Western Hemisphere 1913-1921 (Tuscon, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1986), 33.

[xxvii] Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United State The Papers of Robert Lansing Volume II, (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1940), 539.

[xxviii] Link, Wilson and a Revolutionary World 1913-1921, 25.