During the first decade of the 1900s, Mansfield had a new outlook on a new century: crazy optimism in a blossoming economy with brilliant industrial success. The city was goofy with hope in an unparalleled future.
In the midst of all this rosy good cheer there emerged in the city a kind of unofficial mascot, whose image came to represent the strength and vitality of Mansfield’s industry; its hard-headed practical approach; and, at the same time, the giddy euphoria of success and well-being.
He was a rambunctious and cigar-scented billy goat. His name was Bill William.
Officially, he was born in 1904 on the front of cigar boxes displayed all over the city, and for the next dozen years his cheery dancing image gave a face to the wild enthusiasm of good times in Mansfield.
But as early as 1901 the goat had his own parade, and a festival named for him. In our town, and eventually the nation, his face came to stand for nothing but fun.
The Bill William phenomenon emerged from the creative enthusiasm of a small group of businessmen downtown, who met at the Square every day for a break at noon. Mr. Capeller, Mr. Voegele, Mr. Berno, and Mr. Bowers left their offices and gathered for one reason only, and it was not a business lunch: they were there to have fun. They all loved to play with words.
It turned out that these men had something else in common as well: they all happened to be named William.
Some of them were called Bill, some Will, some William. Their camaraderie quite spontaneously took form as the Bill William Society.
Each of them had grown up with jokes about billy goats; it was not a difficult stretch that the group devised an unofficial goat emblem as their mutual totem.
And when one of the men—William Bowers—started manufacturing a new line of cigars, it was quite natural that he named his brand Bill William.
That was just the start of it.
Once word spread, it turned out there were at least 400 men in Mansfield whose first, middle, or last names were some form of William. So one day in 1901, a crowd of 163 Bills met on the Square, made some speeches, and then proceeded to the Casino at Luna Park for the first annual Bill William picnic.
Somewhere between the Square and the park, the high-spirited gentlemen started yelling out in call-and-response chants to one another, a loud “Hello! Bill” cry. This shout became famous in Mansfield through the next decade. At any time of day or night; in any venue—from the audience of the Opera House, or the train station, or any street of town—someone would yell out, “Hello! Bill,” and from all around came back the echoes of all the city’s William population.
The first picnic was such a resounding success, that when it was repeated the following year there were many dozens of folks in town lamenting that they couldn’t attend, because they weren’t named William. In a magnanimous gesture of community grace, it was determined that anyone could be an honorary Bill for one day if they paid a dollar. A Bill for a bill.
From then on, Bill William day grew in every dimension: the crowds, the activities, the noise.
The festivities opened at high noon on the Square downtown when a parade stepped off and all the Bills marched around the Square led by their ceremonial parade marshal: the big sweet-tempered, and agreeably-scented billy goat.
The goat, who was named William the First but was often referred to as simply King William, led them around the park, and then they all processed down the Main Street hill to catch a streetcar out Fourth Street to the Casino. There were extra cars running all day because the Bills numbered in the hundreds and the party ran till well after the lights came on at Luna Park.
Apparently the parade was a great deal of fun, because it was repeated later in the afternoon at the picnic grounds before the food was served. After a little oration by whichever William was in charge that year, the line stepped off once again and the Bills marched around North Lake behind the goat, a goat cart full of little kids, and a five-piece fife and drum corps.
By that time of the day—after work—the Bills at the park had been augmented by several hundred more, so the second parade was much larger and quite a bit louder than the first. They were all shouting the Bill William yell antiphonally across the lake:
Hey Bill! Hi Bill! Any Old Bill!
Billy Bill! Bully Bill! Bill William!
Believe it or not, these were grown men. Many of them were the leaders of the community including a couple Judges, many attorneys, some bankers, industrial CEOs, high-ranking businessmen and newspaper publishers.
It all sounds a little crazy until you understand one thing. The key element of this story that is not immediately apparent without a little research and luck, is that the hot wires of this event—the handful of colleagues who sparked the game along—were men who all happened to have something else in common besides just their name: they had all graduated from various colleges as brothers of Sigma Chi Fraternity.
Cast into the context of a giant city-wide Frat Party stunt, it all makes sense. Maybe not sense exactly, but it is understandable. It was the non-sense aspect of it that gave the annual event its irresistible aura.
For example, one of the main events of the picnic proceedings was the ceremonial Cake Walk, and every year the official first contestant was Heavy Lemon because he was the one who owned the goat. He was known as Heavy Lemon in Mansfield because he was so huge, but his name was actually Bill Lemon, and he certainly knew how to Cake Walk with his goat because every year he had the crowd shouting for more.
Strange as it may seem, and in contradiction of all the evidence, accounts of the annual event make no mention of beer. It wasn’t that kind of a Frat Party and, though alcohol was certainly a major constituent of male society in 1900, the Bill William Picnic was a family event. Women and children were most welcome and present in large numbers.
One year, a composer from Chicago happened to be in Mansfield for the party, and he was so inspired by the spectacle, he wrote a special Bill march for a thirty-piece brass band. The lyrics include: "For he's a jolly good William!"
(Hello! Bill, March by William H. Scouton 1904; recorded by The Black Diamonds Band for Zonophone Records 1908. Composed for and performed at the Bill William society annual picnic in Mansfield, Ohio, 1904.)
With all this hilarity propelling Mansfield’s iconic goat, the Bill William cigars spread to every state of the nation, and Bill William societies sprang up in cities and towns across the country. There were Bill William picnics in other towns across Ohio, and the Bills in Cincinnati aspired to enroll every William in America into their roster.
The Mansfield Bills invited President William McKinley to their first picnic; and when he sent his regrets, they invited perennial presidential candidates William Jennings Bryan and William Taft. One highlight of the picnics was always reading aloud the regrets of famous Bills who failed to show up in town, and their fabulously convoluted excuses.
Ashes to ashes
Bill William—the society—faded away in the 1910s as the many Bills of Mansfield left the earth; and the organization officially ceased in 1915 when Heavy Lemon moved on to the great Cake Walk in the sky.
Bill William—the picnic—didn’t make it to 1910.
Bill William—the cigar—was manufactured in Mansfield through 1932 when the Great Depression snuffed it out.
Bill William—the goat—had an obituary in The News claiming his end came as the result of poor dietary choices. Early in his career it was said he lived on tomato soup cans, but at the end it was an umbrella that did him in: apparently after eating the umbrella, he wolfed down ‘a box of yeast cakes’ that made the umbrella rise, and the goat was stretched too far out of shape to continue living.