Huzza for the Red, White and Blue! Memories of the Fourth of July
T he first anniversary of the Fourth of July was celebrated in Philadelphia in 1777 with parades, patriotic music and speeches, food and drink, fireworks and displays of the nation’s colors complete with “loud huzzas.” That anniversary had all the elements of future annual celebrations of the nation’s birth. On July 4 we will again celebrate in typical fashion. But what is our local typical fashion?
In 1876, the Bradford Opinion reported news of the nation’s centennial. Articles highlighted the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the first official World’s Fair held in this country. For months, the newspaper described some of the 200 exhibit buildings and the reactions of local residents who visited them. Special Centennial trains carried passengers from Canada and northern New England south on the Passumpsic Railroad.
For most of the rest of the nation, the Centennial was a three-day celebration held July 3-5. For the first time since the Civil War, observances were held throughout the South. The Bradford Opinion encouraged special local observances and the planting of Centennial trees. The grange and sunday school picnic in Newbury Center “was a decided success. The attendance was large, considering the great inducement held out to the citizens to visit other towns.”
In Bradford, it was reported in the July 8th edition that, “several of our young men were badly afflicted with wakefulness on the night of July 3d” and with bells, shouts and shots, announced the Centennial day. The paper reported “five large lights of glass were broken from Mr. C.S. Stevens’ store, while the boys were firing the cannon.” In addition to reports of intertown baseball games and the dedication of Bradford’s new Congregational church, the paper described the massacre of General Custer’s troops at the Little Bighorn.
In the next half century, one of the major features of area parades on the Fourth was the inclusion of “Horribles.” Participants dressed in comic and grotesque costumes and rode in decorated wagons or automobiles. West Fairlee’s annual Horribles parade drew great crowds. A similar “process of Horribles” was held in West Topsham in 1896. That parade was followed by a baseball game between the Hayseed Nine of Cookville and the Do Nothings of West Topsham and a promenade in the evening.
That same year, a similar celebration was held in Fairlee, where “the country, the Lake and the townspeople did themselves credit.” A highlight of the Lake Morey celebration was a flotilla of decorated boats. The hour-long parade Newbury held in 1903, before a crowd of 2,000, drew similar praise.
A parade of Horribles was held in Bradford on July 3, 1909. Despite cloudy skies, the United Opinion reported, “the morning trains and teams emptied into town many pleasure seekers.” The business block and many homes were “decked out in gala attire.” The renowned Lyndonville Band led the parade and later performed two concerts.
The day was complete with a ballgame, egg and potato races and a two-hour fireworks display. The crowd of 2,500 was surpassed by a similar observance the next year when the “weather was excellent, the people orderly and the exercises greatly enjoyed by all.”
Newspaper reports on the activities of Independence Day have often included negatives aspects. The absence of drunkenness and profanity among the crowd at a West Newbury gathering in the 1890s was specifically noted. Vandalism by youth was common. In 1886, boys in Haverhill Corners built a bonfire from every loose thing they could find. Also common in many towns was the removal of store signs, unauthorized ringing of bells and shooting of cannons.
It was considered lucky if there were no serious injuries from the unrestricted use of firecrackers. Bradford historian Harold Haskins describes the fireworks of various calibers available to him as a boy a century ago. About 1910, concerns about these dangers led to restrictions. Haskins laments that “while much has been gained by the adoption of a safe and sane Fourth, something has been lost.” United Opinion editor Harry Parker wrote, “Gone are the reckless, glorious Fourths.” He suggested that when boys grow up with all body parts intact, “they will probably be thankful that someone was so thoughtful as to think enough of their welfare to save them from themselves.”
The United Opinion of June 29, 1928 suggested that the “disturbances and serious mischief on July Fourth” were the result of the failure of many towns to have celebrations of “a better type.” Actually, there were many “better” celebrations throughout the valley, especially as the nation began to observe the nation’s 150th birthday.
In 1924 the Bradford Business Men’s Association staged a celebration that included a parade and games. That evening, Main Street was closed to traffic with an open-air dance featuring the Klark’s 8-piece orchestra. That same year Woodsville held a major celebration at the Community Field with 10,000 in attendance. Two years later, the Woodsville celebration had grown even larger with a parade of decorated autos, floats and Horribles, a large midway, concerts, outdoor movies and fireworks. The Fourth being a Sunday, the sesquicentennial celebration was held on July 5.
Because it takes so much effort to organize celebrations of this type, enthusiasm comes and goes. Towns that staged big events for a few years gave way to other towns’ festivities. In 1931, West Fairlee’s “Gala Day” drew a crowd of 1,000 with traditional competitions and patriotic programs. Newbury held a similar event including horse racing at the Trotting Park north of the village. In Orford, a dance was followed by a midnight fireworks display. None of these seems to have been repeated long enough to establish a tradition.
Probably the largest area-wide celebration of the Fourth was in the Bicentennial year of 1976. Many towns held year-long celebrations with activities centered in the week of the Fourth. Some towns held their parades later in the summer to avoid conflicts. Bicentennial Balls, church services, barbecues and strawberry festivals, historic designations and tours, restoration projects and giant parades filled the calendars. Schools participated with history projects, costumed pageants and essay contests.
Those Bicentennial observances gave the nation an opportunity to review its past and contemplate its future. An editorial in the Journal Opinion on July 6 included this description of Americans: “lovers of hoopla and ceremony, crowds and solitude, exasperatingly honest about the nation’s issues … participants in endless guesswork as to what kind of people we are and what the future holds. This guesswork, like the fireworks and the parades, is all part of the show. And we’ve enjoyed every minute.”
Currently, celebrations are held throughout the area. According to Haverhill historian Katherine Blaisdell, the Woodsville American Legion sponsored “an especially large Fourth of July celebration” in 1946, but it “tapered off after a few years. It was revived in 1976 and today, the celebration draws large crowds with a giant parade that includes both Woodsville and Wells River. The day is filled with a celebration at the community field in Woodsville and a fireworks display.
Orford’s “Old Home Day” Fourth, which began in 1947, was sponsored by the Community Council. In the early years of that celebration, post-parade activities were centered on the Mall. Anne Green of Orford, who marched in the first parade dressed as Miss Independence, recently recalled the “wonderful homemade games and activities” of the midway. In addition to an auction, horse pull and pony rides, she recalls turtle races and “pull-a-string” to win a prize. Her memories are of a day of fun capped by a fireworks display on the southern end of the Mall. As her mother, Phyllis Lawrence, was a major organizer of the celebration for many years and since the fireworks were set off from the hill behind her house, Ann had a front row experience.
About 1965, the Orford celebration was moved to the Community Field and organized by the Fire Department. As before, the parade began at the south end of Orford village and went through Fairlee village. However, when the field site underwent major improvements, the midway was abandoned. Now, after a large two-town parade, Fairlee hosts a chicken barbeque, and later, fireworks over Lake Morey.
An observance in East Corinth includes a parade beginning in the village and ending at the fairgrounds for a giant chicken barbecue, games and music. This celebration, sponsored by the East Corinth Congregational Church, was begun in 1990. When asked about its origin, organizer Nancy Frost said that it began after her father asked her, “Why don’t we have a parade anymore?” That, and a lot of enthusiasm, is all it took to establish a Fourth of July tradition enjoyed by many.
Currently the Fourth is marked by family reunions, a parade with patriotic overtone, a day at the beach or just a quiet day off from work and topped with live or televised fireworks. This year, as before, local celebrations will allow tourists and residents to experience true “old home day” feelings.
This is as it should be. As the editor of the Virginia Gazette wrote in July 1777: “Thus may the 4th of July, that glorious and most memorable day be celebrated through America, by the sons of freedom from age to age till time shall be no more. Amen and amen.”
The article was adapted from one previously published in the “Journal Opinion.” Coffin is the author of “In Times Past: Essays From the Upper Valley” available at local bookstores. He can be reached at email@example.com.