Journal Opinion August 28, 2013
The first Labor Day parade was held on Sept. 5, 1882 in New York City. Thirty thousand workers
took an unpaid day off to march in support of labor unions and labor reform.
Labor Day symbolizes the unofficial end of summer. With cooler, foggier mornings, shorter days and just a hint of colorful foliage, the change of seasons is forcast. After the long weekend, vacations conclude and schools reopen. But that was not the original meaning of the day. This article explains the origins of Labor Day and how it has been observed locally.
The information is drawn from online sources, local interviews and town histories, The United Opinion and its successor, The Journal Opinion.
Labor Day was first suggested in America in the 1880s to promote the goals of fledgling labor unions. One early labor leader described it as an honor to those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” At that time it was common for workers to work 60 to 70-hour each weeks with perhaps Sunday off. Vacations were non-existent and the only holidays were New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Labor Day was a day off, independent of other celebrations, on which workers could “celebrate working by not.”
The first Labor Day parade was held on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882 in New York City. Thirty thousand workers took an unpaid day off and marched. One New York newspaper described the post-parade festivities as “speeches, a picnic, an abundance of cigars and Lager beer kegs.” Bradford’s newspaper, in an edition heavy with news of strikes around the nation, gave it a one-line description, reducing the number of marchers to 20,000. In 1884 the observance was moved to the first Monday in September where it has remained ever since.
By 1894, Labor Day was a legal holiday in 31 states. New Hampshire was one of those, having adopted the legislation in 1889. In 1894, Congress passed legislation making Labor Day a federal holiday. President Grover Cleveland, pressured to heal the turmoil left by the bitter Pullman Strike, signed it into law. The benefit of this law did not extend beyond some federal workers.
Vermont did not adopt Labor Day legislation until 1898. The first observances were held the following year in Barre, Rutland and Burlington, all communities with stronger union sentiments. By the turn of the century there were major parades and demonstrations in cities across the nation, the day being an opportunity to advocate for labor reform.
A review of The United Opinion between 1884 and 1920 shows little evidence of the Monday holiday being observed in reportable fashion. Perhaps the “grand rally” held by area Republicans in Cookeville on Labor Day in1896 took advantage of the holiday. The editorial column in September 1908 does mention it: “Labor Day, not the ordinary three hundred and sixty-five, but the one with a capital letter, ushered in this week with a holiday.”
While school openings occurred on the first Tuesday of September and there were back-to-school advertisements for local businesses, no mention was made of Labor Day during the early years of the 20th century. It must have been customary for stores to close, however, because in 1921 there was just the smallest notice with no fanfare announcing that Bradford stores would be closed on Labor Day.
Major celebrations on Labor Day were held during the period from 1920 to 1939, first in Newbury and then in East Corinth. On Sept. 6, 1920 the Newbury chapter of Modern Woodmen of America sponsored the first of a series of Labor Day celebrations in Newbury village. These celebrations featured a parade of floats, horribles, marchers and bands followed by band concerts, horse racing, a vaudeville show, baseball games, and an airplane flyover. The evening events included a carnival, open-air movies and dance. The Woodmen donated the proceeds to community causes including the fund to replace the hall adjacent to the high school, the old one having burned in 1924.
The Newbury column in The United Opinion described the success of each year’s event, even in years when it rained. It was written that at the 1924 celebration “thousands were present to witness and assist in making possible one of the most successful and in many respects the most enjoyable good times staged in years. It was reported that nearly 300 couples attended the evening dance and enjoyed the music of Klark’s Orchestra until 1 a.m. Several other town columnists mentioned the Newbury event. The Pike column contained the following: “Labor Day passed very quiet as many in the village went to Newbury.”
The last of these major Newbury celebrations was held in 1929 as the series became victim of the Woodmen chapter’s demise and competition from other area events. Those other events include Whoope Boxing bouts at an outdoor stadium sponsored by the Bradford Athletic Club, the St. Johnsbury fair and a midnight dance at Lake Morey. The United Opinion summed up that year’s holiday with an editorial stating that the day was a “tribute to all, including the housewife.”
Between 1930 and 1938 East Corinth was the center of Labor Day activities. Director and community leader Harry Hunter sought to revive the fair that had been held there prior to 1907. The report of the first year’s event noted that despite some morning rain, the parade, horse pulling, foot races, ball game and rolling pin throwing contest all attracted large crowds. The writer concluded that “the well-known community spirit of the district was in full evidence.”
Yearly the Opinion featured a major front-page article describing the East Corinth celebration. Over the years the crowds grew until, in 1938, there were 2,000 in attendance, many from other communities. In 1931 and 1938 the governor of Vermont was the special guest. Each year the East Corinth baseball team faced off against a town team from Bradford, Chelsea or East Barre or lacking that, between the single and married men of the community. Area bands played for the parade, concerts and an evening dance.
Eris Eastman of Bradford recalls growing up on Taplin Hill and participating in the “huge” annual parade. She said that groups of families created floats, hiding them from prying eyes, “practically guarding it with shotguns.” Some floats reflected an historical theme whereas others were, according to the Opinion, “highly amusing…demonstrating that the Yankee sense of humor cannot be suppressed by any old depression.”
Another feature was the rolling pin throwing contest, with divisions for married and unmarried women. The reporter wrote, “Each lady was allowed four throws and her score computed by the number of hits on the effigy…if we were a burglar, we would rather face the man of the house with a gun in his hand than the missus with a rolling pin, after seeing what happened to the poor effigy.” A paper published by the Corinth Historical Society describes the demise of the East Corinth celebration.
Following the death of Harry Hunter in Jan.1940, “An attempt was made to continue the celebration, but the enthusiasm was gone.” There were other events in the area, although none seem to be as ambitious as the one in East Corinth. The Women’s Club in Newbury held an annual chicken pie supper along with a small fair. There was an annual fair in Groton. The Dreamland Pavilion in Bradford held a Dawn Dance from midnight Sunday to 5 a.m. In the period after 1939 war news drove the reports of celebrations from the front page of the local newspaper
. In 1940 there was a Labor Day festival in Bradford, a State Championship Baseball game at Currier Park in Fairlee between the Fairlee team and Randolph and a dance at Lake Morey Casino. As in previous years, the newspaper reported the close of summer youth camps and the opening of area schools. During the years of World War II, Labor Day celebrations were dampened by the absence of so many men and the rationing of gas and tires. In 1944, the Dreamland Pavilion again held its Dawn Dance with George Bedell prompting.
Celebrations were reinvigorated in the post-war years. Bradford’s American Legion Post held a carnival on the old fairground in 1947. The next year, J. Arthur Peters and his students began the Connecticut Valley Fair. For the next few years it would be held on or around Labor Day weekend. In 1951, despite miserable weather, more than 5000 attended the fair held on Memorial Field. A ball game between the nearly undefeated East Corinth Little League with Harry McLam and Peter and Gene Pierson against the Bradford team attracted a crowd. For several years, beginning in 1947, Fairlee’s Recreation Council sponsored a Labor Day Festival. It centered at the Casino and featured round and square dancing. It featured Don Durlacher, a “national leader in the square dance world.” The East Corinth Fairgrounds hosted jalopy races, a predecessor of later, more elaborate, auto racing. In the years that followed, Labor Day observances fell into a predictable pattern
. As with the events described above there was little emphasis on the efforts of labor unions, although the eight-hour day and 40-hour work week reforms encouraged celebrations over three-day weekends. In 1953 a Bradford National Bank advertisement praised the efforts of both labor and management: “giving more cause to celebrate as each Labor Day appears.”
One could expect Labor Day to feature dawn dances, community chicken barbecues, band concerts, auctions, yard sales and family gatherings. Summer vacationers began their “annual exodus” and seasonal businesses closed. Other businesses, having observed a summer break, opened for the new season. More and more, it became summer’s last gasp. An editorial in this newspaper in 1998 noted that many experienced “end of summer blues.”
In the years before I-91 opened, holiday traffic fatalities and numerous arrests for speeding were reported along with heavy traffic on area highways. Drivers were encouraged to turn on their headlights and lower their speed for safety.
There are three area events that will highlight this year’s Labor Day weekend. All three have been held annually for over 35 years. The Thetford Volunteer Fire Department Labor Day Chicken Barbecue was first held in 1960 to raise money for the department. Over the years, a parade, flea market and educational displays have been added to the annual event held at the Post Mills fire station on Route 244. This year’s Labor Day parade will begin at 11:30 a.m. and lines will immediately form for the barbecued chicken and homemade pies.
Bradford’s Bear Ridge Speedway will hold its annual Labor Day Classic, an event that has been held every year since the track opened in 1968. Held this year on Aug. 31, the Classic will feature six classes including the Sprint Cars of New England Fast Four Madness. The speedway draws a weekly crowd of over 900 spectators and participants and this year’s holiday event will, according to owner Butch Elms, be the same.
The Men’s and Co-ed Slow-pitch Softball Tournament will be held at Mills Memorial Field in South Ryegate, Aug. 30 to Sept. 2. This Labor Day classic, according to director David Eastman, began in the late 1970s and draws “a heck of a lot of people,” both as spectators and participants. This year he expects over 50 teams playing on four fields over the four-day tournament.
Time off from labor is more frequent today. It is no longer common for most workers to endure backbreaking working hours and conditions. Many of those reforms are the result of the efforts of the organizations that first promoted Labor Day in the 1880s. As labor unions have not been common in the area, it is not surprising that the holiday lacks a reformer’s tone. Residents of the Upper Valley, along with other New Englanders, have a tradition of and respect for hard work. It is from those characteristic that Labor Day takes its meaning.
Those enjoying a barbecue, a ball game or some other late summer outing might reflect on the extended weekend. Perhaps, in reading this article, they might think for a moment about the following editorial in The United Opinion prior to Labor Day 1926. “No emotion is more essential to the individual engaged in any line of endeavor than that of pride.Labor Day is labor’s ‘pride day.’ Then the toiler rests for the moment, and has the leisure to give himself to contemplation, to inward appreciation of the highly important place he and his fellows occupy in the world’s affairs.The victories of labor have changed the whole structure of the world’s social system. They deserve a special day for remembering.”