Pageant of the Waters
By Patricia Lathrom
In the summer of 1923, a spectacular 4-day celebration took place in Decatur to honor the completion of Lake Decatur. At the time, Decatur was a manufacturing force in America’s growing prosperity and home to industrial giants such as Mueller Company, Wagner Castings and A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company. We even had a celebrated football team, the Decatur Staley’s, who moved to Chicago and became the Chicago Bears.
In 1918, Staley, along with a handful of other influential businessmen, persuaded the city to move forward with plans to create a large reservoir to meet the needs not only of citizens, but also manufacturing companies.
“Staley was prepared to move his factory to Peoria, if he couldn’t persuade the city to build the lake,” says Laura Jahr, Museum Director of the Staley Museum.
When completed, Lake Decatur was a 2,300-acre reservoir with a 30-mile shoreline that represented Decatur’s promising future.
The celebration festivities began on July 4th with parades, floats, speeches and swimming contests. The Illinois Athletic Club of Chicago sent their swim team here to compete and Johnny Weismuller, who went on to become Tarzan in Hollywood films, broke his own record in the 500-meter freestyle. The day ended with an extravagant firework display setoff from pontoons floating in the lake.
“The Pageant of the Waters,” a gorgeous spectacle in which 500 people participated, was presented on day two of the festivities in Nelson Park from a stage built along the shoreline. The afternoon show was poorly attended because of threatening skies. By evening, however, the rain clouds had gone and thousands streamed into the park to take their seats on the hillside.
From the first flourishes of white clad heralds until the last actor left the stage, the presentation was deemed superb.
The scope of the pageant was breathtaking and all encompassing. It depicted not only the history of the lake, the story of the city’s growth and its promise for the future, but also conveyed the civic consciousness that made such a project possible.
W. F. Hardy, editor of The Decatur Herald, an early and enthusiastic backer of the lake project, was recruited to write and oversee the ambitious project.
“He was surprised he was picked to write and oversee the Pageant,” says Dan Hardy, Decatur resident and W.F.’s grandson. “He hadn’t planned on doing that. But someone told him he was going to, and so he did.”
A succession of brief and simple scenes filled the stage depicting the Native American tribes who originally inhabited the Sangamon Valley and Decatur’s participation in the Civil War and World War I. Decatur’s leading lights, such as Richard Oglesby, James Millikin and Jessie Moore, were represented.
The pageant devoted many scenes to its most famous former resident, Abraham Lincoln. Scenery included a replica of the Wigwam in which Abraham Lincoln was nominated for the presidency in 1860, as well as the log cabin in the Sangamon River bottoms where he homesteaded in 1830. Lincoln’s adventures on a flat boat negotiating the Sangamon and his circuit riding days were also reenacted. His nomination scene was reported to be one of the most exciting of the production.
One remarkably beautiful tableau depicted the Spirit of Decatur, who was seated on a raised throne, with the Spirit of the Waters at her feet. Actors representing Light, Education, Hospitality, Parks and Streets sat at her feet, stretching their hands toward her. The Spirit of Despair, however, taunted the young Decatur and insulted the small Sangamon River. Civic Spirit stood strong and brought helpers to aid the community in its growth, thus defeating the Spirit of Despair.
Colorful and lively dances graced the stage and contributed to the symbolism and beauty of the production. Hundreds of local school children along with several solo dancers took part.
Decatur’s Oratorio Choir of 250 voices, led by D. M. Swarthout, was a notable feature of the performances, embroidering each episode with the verse of an old hymn sung off-stage. In the final episode, the choir sang the beautiful water theme from Mendelssohn’s renowned “Elijah.”
“If with all your hearts, ye truly seek Me, ye shall ever surely find me,” rang out through the night air.
The pageant closed with the Spirit of Prophecy who called upon the various elements and persons who would make Decatur’s future bright: dedicated city officials, educators and representatives of the arts. Viewers left the park amazed by what they had seen.
The joyous four-day celebration and “The Pageant of the Waters” are today a nearly forgotten memory. However, in its day, the Pageant was the biggest stage production most had ever seen, and its narrative paid homage to the small farm town that became an industrial giant and home to the largest man-made lake in Illinois.
Community planning is already underway for a reenactment of the Pageant of the Waters during the 100-year anniversary celebration of Lake Decatur in July 2023. Watch for the community call to action coming soon.
Patricia Lathrom is a regular contributor to Decatur Magazine.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Decatur Magazine. It may not be reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part without the publisher’s consent.
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