Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

The Colossal Picnic Through Iowa

Jack London "bummed" his way over mountains and plains from San Francisco to Omaha as he became part of Kelly's Industrial Army in 1894 He kept a journal of his exploits that year.

The Industrial Army was made up of unemployed laborers that grew out of the Panic of 1893 when unemployment reached 11.7% that year followed by a jump to 18.4% the next year. Those who found themselves without a job did not have benefits built up from which they could draw a small subsistence.

Twenty-four box cars filled with 1,500 men traveled eastward to Omaha, then entered Iowa with the intention of going all the way to Washington, DC to demonstrate and protest. A large number of them journeyed down the Des Moines River from Iowa's capital city that spring, as witnessed by thousands of Iowans who came out to greet them and feed them.

Newspapers had been lavish about covering the exploits of these men, and continued to monitor their movement through the state. While communities did their best to feed the men along the way, there was general apprehension and they did their best to keep them a "safe" distance away from their towns. Large towns were prepared to resist them so that the immense fleet did not land on their doorstep.

Their leader Kelly was aware of the problem and agreed to anchor the boats at designated points along the way.

Charles T. Kelly was a 32-year-old printer from San Francisco who was a student of sociology. He became the "general" of the western group. Few members of Kelly's Army made it past the Ohio River, but those that did joined with a group under Jacob Coxey and by the time they reached Washington to protest, were known as Coxey's Army.

Kelly's Army consisted of 1,400 men who floated down the Des Moines River on flatboats provided to them by the people of Des Moines (as the best way to politely rid themselves of the horde.) It required 1400 loaves of bread, 1000 pounds of meat and 50 pounds of coffee to feed this mob each day. As they floated along through Van Buren County, the large group went through Keosauqua, Bonaparte and Farmington.

Jack London entered the following notes into his journal:

The diary he kept is a vivid portrayal of the famous "campaign" from the viewpoint of a private in rank. "The hospitable Iowa farm folk!" he wrote many years later. From Omaha to Des Moines, they carried our baggage and often gave us hot lunches at noon by the wayside, and made speeches of welcome along the way. His feet were sore from marching but he thoroughly enjoyed the "colossal picnic" as they basked on the boats and floated down the river through Iowa's beautiful countryside.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick