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This man's dream float became a reality
By Barry Schrader.................................January
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 ships deck. They were actually two
sawed-off shotguns with blanks that were triggered by the driver
at random during parades.
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 familys musical group and parade vehicle. The youngest,
Angela Finstad, now living in Minnesota, was 3 when she first
recalled the familys 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
So in 1965 Pauls 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 Watermans
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