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Barry Schrader


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This man's dream float became a reality

By Barry Schrader.................................January 21, 2009

Paul Eakle had a dream – one that he pursued after he got home from fighting overseas in World War I. But it took until 1934 to see it take shape – building a battleship float to use in parades across America as a goodwill effort for the American Legion and U.S. Navy, as well as his hometown of Waterman.

Eakle rounded up friends from the local Waterman American Legion post to help construct the 42-foot-long replica of a real ship, one that was originally christened the USS Illinois and later became the USS Prairie State, a U.S. Navy training ship. Mounted on the chassis of a 1-ton, six-cylinder 1933 Chevy truck, the nearly 12,000-pound wooden frame ship was a hit wherever it went around the country and even up to Canada.

Eakle died in 1953 at age 57 but his widow Mary and eight children kept his dream alive for several more years of parading and displaying the replica battleship at American Legion conventions. The USS Illinois made trips to national conventions and parades as far way as San Francisco, New York and Quebec, Canada. Driving many of those miles was his son-in-law Ivan Williams, whose late wife Mavis was one of the eight children.

The Eakle family organized its own band, drum corps and dancing group to entertain along with the float or at special events nationwide. Ivan recalls logging thousands of miles behind the wheel of the big float, “having to hold on with both hands at all times because there was no power steering or power brakes. My shoulders were very sore by nightfall as we pulled into our next destination,” he said. But then in 1950, they were able to obtain a new GMC 2-ton truck chassis which included power steering and brakes, which made the driving much more tolerable.

Williams remembers passing two U.S. presidents along the parade route – FDR in Miami and Harry Truman in Chicago. He also recalls at least three governors visiting the float – Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Green of Illinois and Ronald Reagan – later President Reagan.

When Gov. Stevenson came aboard at the State Fair in Springfield, he presented us with a goodwill message to be delivered to the prime minister of Canada, and then I gave him a ride around the race track at the fairgrounds, the governor holding onto the big cable that ran across the top of the 11-foot-high bridge and enjoying himself all the way,” Williams reminisced.

He admitted he had the most fun when firing off the two mounted guns that stood on the ship’s deck. They were actually two sawed-off shotguns with blanks that were triggered by the driver at random during parades.

Talking with two of the Eakle daughters by phone last week, I heard how much it meant to them during their childhood being a part of the family’s musical group and parade vehicle. The youngest, Angela Finstad, now living in Minnesota, was 3 when she first recalled the family’s drum corps, but instead of marching in parades she got to ride on the float. Though quite young at the time, she remembers the summer trip to Canada and all the excitement that the ship generated at each stop along the route. In many communities the local Legionnaires had been contacted in advance by Eakle and they arranged for police motorcycle escorts through their towns and provided places to stay at night.

Her older sister, Joey Clark, who lives between Sycamore and Cortland, said she liked marching in front of the float as part of the family drum corps and earlier, when 5 years old, got to stand at the front of the ship as they took part in parades.

Her late husband, Jack, built a 3-foot-long replica of the float and she still has it at home encased in glass. Someday it may become part of the Waterman Area Heritage Society exhibit at the museum on Lincoln Highway.

The float needed constant repairs, engine work and renovation as the wooden superstructure was left outside most of the year and deteriorated from the weather.

After rebuilding the ship several times it was finally decided the float had run its course, and the eight kids had all grown up.

So in 1965 Paul’s widow, Mary made the decision to have it dismantled and its three decades of parading came to an end.

But it still lives on in the memories of hundreds of Waterman residents who grew up seeing that big battleship cruise through town or parked at the Eakle residence. Many locals were invited to go along on trips and parades so have stories to tell their grandchildren about the adventures they had aboard Waterman’s USS Illinois.

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Barry Schrader
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DeKalb, Ill 60115