WILMINGTON — When a high school student in a small Vermont town refused to stand and salute the American flag, 200 of his neighbors drove Darwin Wilder and his family out of town.
Darwin’s parents, Charles and Bessie Wilder, were lifelong residents of Wilmington where the family ran a jewelry and watch repair store. Amid accusations of pro-German sympathies, their teenage son was, on March 27, 1918, given 10 days to pledge allegiance to the stars and stripes or be expelled.
Uncomfortable in the harsh glare of controversy, Charles, Bessie and Darwin left home to visit their son, Bernard, in New York. Upon their return, they discovered that, in their absence, their home had been adorned with patriotic symbols and threats.
The Brattleboro Reformer noted, “Since their departure their dwelling has been decorated by unknown hands. Near the ridgepole is painted in large white letters ‘U.S. of America’ from a long pole roped to the chimney the stars and stripes are floating. From a pole in front of the house is another flag. At the right of the front door is a cartoon of Uncle Sam painted in red white and blue with a finger pointing to the flag with the words ‘Our Flag.’ At his feet are the immortal words of John A. Dix: ‘If any man attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot.’
“It is reported that on the return of the family there will be in waiting patriotic citizens who will invite them to salute the flag,” the article noted.
America’s involvement in World War I began tentatively. Initially, the country aggressively asserted its neutrality. The number one song from 1915 was the pacifist anthem, “I Didn’t Raise my Boy to Be a Soldier.” More than 650,000 copies of the sheet music were sold with the chorus that everyone knew by heart.
But with reports of German aggression and the sinking of the Lusitania, the U.S. propaganda machine changed public sentiment as quickly and decisively as Big Brother in Orwell’s “1984.” An exhibit at the New York Public Library delineated the profound change in the American point of view: “As anti-German sentiment within the United States grew, many Americans began advocating strongly for military preparedness, in expectation that the country would eventually join the conflict. These hawkish, often nationalistic voices were, in turn, answered by those belonging to a diverse group of individuals, among them pacifists, suffragists, socialists, anarchists, religious figures, and German sympathizers, who believed that it was in America’s best interest to stay out of the war.”
It is not clear which philosophy the Wilders subscribed to. They most likely were not pacifists, as they had a son serving in the U.S. Navy. Perhaps they were just slow to change their politics with the prevailing ethos. In any event, when it was learned that the family would return home on the 6 p.m. train, 200 of their townsmen, according to the March 27 Brattleboro Reformer, “Assembled at their house and before they entered the home, Mr. Wilder was required to salute the flag. As soon as Mr. Wilder had saluted the flag, the church bells were sounded, the crowd dispersed and Wilmington resumed its calm once more.”
The following day The Reformer added, “it developed yesterday that a pot of tar and a big feather pillow were in evidence Wednesday night when the crowd made Mr. Wilder salute the flag.”
The same newspaper also noted that after the demonstration at their home, the family had decided to leave Wilmington. “Mr. and Mrs. Charles O. Wilder are packing their goods and it is said that they will leave Wilmington. Wilder denies that he said he hoped Germany would win the war, but is quoted by a leading citizen as having said, “I hope neither side will win.”
Wilder went on to say that his salute to the flag Wednesday night meant nothing, as it was performed under compulsion. “I would have saluted the Chinese or any other flag under similar conditions,” adding “all ceremonies pertaining to the flag are foolish.”
As news of the event spread throughout the state others weighed in on the event. The Barre Daily Times reported, “it was largely at the request of Mr. Wilder’s patriotic son Leo Wilder, who is in the U.S. Navy, that he saluted the flag.”
The Argus was surprised at the family’s lack of caution: “Probably never before in its history has this Green Mountain town been so aroused and the wonder of all is, that Mr. Wilder, who is a jeweler, and his family should have been so indiscreet in their utterances.”
In an April 2, 1918, letter to the editor Charles Wilder attempted to explain his point of view: “I regard our entrance into the war as unnecessary and unwise. Now that we are in, I think a great effort should be made to settle the trouble by agreement and stop, if possible, the further spilling of blood … Flag waving and flag worship are only forms. They can not win this war. Coercion and persecution are no evidence of patriotism. Bigotry and intolerance have been conspicuous in all ages of the world. Those who took part in the demonstrations Tuesday night have injured themselves more than me, and the markings on my house will stand as a monument to their discredit and the town’s.”
Wilder’s remarks would have been completely acceptable a few months previous, but the ginning-up of pro-war sentiment made them, in spring 1918, completely intolerable.
Not content to let Wilder have the last word, the Rutland Herald, clearly provoked by Charles Wilder’s sense of righteousness, opined: “In addition to having a bad case of ego, this Wilder person is a good man to watch. He needs to be taught that this country is at war and that his utterances are fully chargeable under the espionage laws. If he keeps on in the vein that aroused the wrath of Wilmington, he will find himself either in a federal prison or in another mob movement that won’t end quite so cheerfully.”
The Wilders moved to nearby Brattleboro where they lived quietly for many years. Darwin became a jeweler in Massachusetts.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian who lives in Barre.