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The Terrible Danes

This is Roald Tweet on Rock island

Tourists from Davenport who come across the little mermaid over there in Denmark aren’t impressed. They know she’s just a bit of public relations by which Denmark is trying to put on a friendly face. Davenporters know better. A great many of them are descendants of Germans who emigrated to America in the late 1840s, fleeing a period of political and civil instability in Europe.

Germans came to Davenport in such numbers that they turned the brand-new village on the Mississippi into a German town, rich in music and literary culture. In the last half of the 19th century, nearly every shop, restaurant, hotel, and business establishment in the west end of Davenport was German owned.

A great many of the Davenport Germans had come from two Deutsches of Schleswig and Holstein, ruled by Denmark but populated almost entirely by Germans. As part of the general uprising in Europe, the Schleswig-Holsteiners mounted a military revolt against the despotic Danish government. It was the failure of this revolt against the tyrant Danish king that caused many of the leaders of this revolt to flee in fear of their lives and come to Davenport Iowa. They comprised the largest single group of Davenport Germans.

That is why, for sixty years, there was a monument in Davenport’s Washington Square, erected by the Kampfgenossenverein, the Battle Comrade Society to the memory of the brave German freedom fighters against Danish rule. That monument stood until 1918, until the Schleswig-Holsteiners faced a new tyrant: the State of Iowa.

When America entered World War I that year, Iowa ordered German culture to be erased from the state wherever it could be found. German texts were burned; speaking German was banned in both public and private. This time there was no question of resisting the tyrant. The Davenport Germans believed in democracy, in America, and in Davenport. They had been among the first and most loyal supporters of the Union in the Civil War.

And so, the monument in Washington Square came down with little protest, leaving the little mermaid to stand alone as a representation of Danish character.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.