Today in 1914, the people of Manchester turned a time-honored New England tradition on its head. Rather than celebrating Old Home Days – an annual event held in communities across New England to bring emigrated Yankees back for a visit to their “Old Home” town – the city celebrated “Homeland Day,” where Manchester’s foreign-born residents honored their countries of origin with a multicultural city-wide gala. The day was marked by a grand parade, multinational concerts and dances, and opportunities to feast on a spectacular variety of international foods. This novel event, ideally suited to a city whose largest employer had spent years recruiting European migrants to come work in its textile mills, was so large and well-received that it prompted an eight-page special edition of The Manchester Herald.
Manchester’s Homeland Day was the idea of Ruth Sears Bacon Cheney, wife of Austin Cheney, principal in the silk manufacturing company of that name. Mrs. Cheney came up with the idea while volunteering with the Educational Club, an organization of women formed to cooperate with the teachers in the public schools. At the time, many of Manchester’s public school students were foreign born or first-generation Americans whose parents worked in the city’s silk, wool, cotton, and paper mills. Though living and working in America, these families still strongly identified with their countries of origin through organizations such as the Italian-American club, the Swedish church, the British-American club, etc. During the winter of 1913/14, with Ruth Cheney’s support, the Educational Club had appropriated a sum to teach folk dancing… “with the idea of holding a public celebration or carnival on the Center Park.” The idea took off, and with Cheney as its champion, rapidly expanded into a gala which would, “besides folk dancing by the school children… include a program in which the various nationalities representing Manchester would take part, each exemplifying some national dance, custom, or pastime.”
June 13 dawned with perfect weather for the all-day event, which, in addition to attracting most of Manchester’s 16,000 residents, also brought in 10,000 visitors from surrounding towns. At 10 a.m., the Grand Parade of Nations kicked off with floats representing England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, America, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the American Mechanics and others. They were accompanied by the Governor’s Foot Guard, companies of the state militia and cavalry, and uniformed members of the Naval Reserves and Boy Scouts. The afternoon was dedicated to national and folk dancing at the city’s old golf grounds, and that evening, a concert of national songs by various ethnic choruses was followed by a general dance on the Green at Center Park. Numerous committees had organized traffic flow, carnival booths, and food. A special tent for women and children was set up near the concert grounds. Extra transportation was scheduled for the trolleys and the South Manchester Railroad. Most stores were closed all day, although grocery stores did stay open to accommodate the thousands of participants.
By any standard, Manchester’a first Homeland Day was an unqualified success. The Manchester Herald reported “Homeland Day Was Happy Day; Unique Programs of Afternoon and Evening Enjoyed by Vast Throngs – Perfect Arrangements and No Disorder… Everybody is happy, for it was a glorious success.” Undoubtedly, the city’s first Homeland Day might have marked – like the running of the first Manchester Thanksgiving Road Race in 1927 – the start of an annual tradition. But a very distant event that happened just a fortnite later– the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia – triggered the start of World War I. After that, celebrating one’s ties to a foreign country in an America trying to avoid engagement in a European war became – at least for a while – a much more complicated proposition.
Front Page, Special Homeland Day Edition, Manchester Herald
“A Short History of Homeland Day,” Manchester Herald