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Thursday, March 26, 2009

July 4: An American Holiday

These two photos are of the 1909 July 4th parade in Bradford. Its theme was "Parade of Horribles." The first-place float above made fun of the new autos in town (photos: Bradford Historical Society).

Fourth of July postcards were popular a century ago. They reflected both the themes of patriotism and the need for a "sane and safe" holiday.

Major Fourth of July parades are held in Woodsville-Wells River (above) and
Orford-Fairlee (below)

Originally published on July 2, 2008
Journal Opinion

The first anniversary of the Fourth of July was celebrated in Philadelphia in 1777 with parades, patriotic music and speeches, food with drink, fireworks, the nation’s colors complete with “loud huzzas.” The celebration on that day had all the elements of typical future celebrations of the nation’s birth.

This week we will celebrate the 232nd anniversary of that birth and Upper Valley residents will do it up in typical fashion. But what is typical fashion for our area? Do major anniversaries of the date greatly overshadow otherwise less significant years?

In 1876, the pages of the Bradford Opinion were filled with news of the Centennial. Many of the articles highlighted the Exposition in Philadelphia, the first official world’s fair held in this country. Although its theme was designed to show the world “the industrial and innovative prowess” of the United States, the Centennial made it an overwhelming attraction for over ten million visitors. Each week for months, the newspaper would describe some of the 200 buildings and their exhibits as well as the reactions of local residents who visited them. Many of those visitors rode special Centennial trains that carried passengers from Canada and northern New England south through the area on the Passumpic 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 local communities to hold special observances and plant 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.” Those other towns included St. Johnsbury where, despite inclement weather, a major celebration was held.

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 that “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 inter-town baseball games and the dedication of the Bradford’s new Congregational church, the paper reported the massacre of Custer’s troops at the Little
BigHorn. That story continued to headline the paper for the following weeks.

In the next half century, one of the major features of area parades on the Fourth was the inclusion of Horribles. Area residents would dress in comic and grotesque costumes and ride in decorated wagons and, later, automobiles. West Fairlee held an annual Horribles parade for a number of years drawing 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 up to fifty decorated boats. The hour-long parade Newbury held in 1903, before a crowd of 2000, drew similar praise.

One of the major parades of Horribles was held in Bradford on July 3, 1909, the first time the town had held a major observance in quite a while. 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 performed two concerts as well as leading the parade of Horribles.

The first prize in that parade went to R. B. Edwards’ automobile outfit (see photo). Representing the disadvantages of owning an automobile, the costumed occupants had to alight frequently to make repairs to this horse-drawn “auto.” The day was complete with a ballgame, egg and potato races and a two-hour fire works display. The crowd of 2500 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 negative aspects of the observance. The absence of drunkenness and profanity among the crowd at a West Newbury gathering in the 1890s made it a successful day. Vandalism by youth was common. In 1886, boys in Haverhill Corners built a bonfire from every lose thing they could find. Also common in many towns was the removing store signs, placing wagons atop public structures, unauthorized ringing of bells and shooting of cannons.

It was considered lucky if there were no serious injuries or even fatalities from the unrestricted use of firecrackers, it was considered lucky. Harold Haskins includes in his history of Bradford a very complete description of the fireworks of various calibers available to a boy. About 1910, concerns about these dangers led to restrictions. He 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 failure of many towns to have celebrations of “a better type.” Certainly there were many such celebrations throughout the valley, especially as the nation observed the 150th anniversary of its birth.

Blaisdell’s History of Haverhill reports that Woodsville held a major celebration in 1924 at the Community Field with 10,000 in attendance. That same year, the Bradford Business Men’s Association staged a celebration that including a parade and games. In the evening, Main Street was closed to traffic as an open-air dance was held in the Square with nearly 140 couples dancing to the music of Klark’s 8-piece Orchestra. 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 would give way to other towns’ festivities. In 1931, West Fairlee’s “Gala Day” drew a crowd of 1000 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 held at the Hay Loft followed by a midnight fireworks display. None of these seems to have repeated long enough to establish a tradition.

Probably the largest area-wide celebration of the Fourth was in the Bicentennial year, 1976. Many towns, flying their official Bicentennial flag, made it a year-long celebration with activities centered in the week of the Fourth. Some towns, including Bradford and Ryegate, 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 this newspaper on July 6 included these descriptions of Americans: lovers of hoopla and ceremony, crowds and solitude, exasperatingly honest about the nation’s issues, participator in “endless guess work…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, the three major area celebrations are in Woodsville-Wells River and Orford-Fairlee and East Corinth. According to 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 two-town celebration draws large crowds with a giant parade that begins in Woodsville and wends its way across the Connecticut to 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, pony rides, she recalls turtle races and “pull-a-string” to win a prize. She shares with this writer the memories 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 to the day.

About 1965, the Orford celebration was moved to the Community Field and organized by the Fire Department. As before, the parade would begin at the south end of Orford village and march across the river and through Fairlee village. However, when the field site underwent major improvements, the midway was abandoned. Now after a giant two-town parade, Fairlee hosts a chicken barbeque and fireworks over Lake Morey.

The East Corinth observance 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, Lyle Thompson, asked her, “Why don’t we have a parade any more?”. That, and a lot of enthusiasm, is all it took to establish a Fourth of July tradition enjoyed by many.

As in the past, for a nation at war, the patriotic overtones of the day take on a special emphasis. For many, the Fourth holds a meaning centered on family. Family reunions, a day at the beach or just a quiet day off from work, topped with the televised Boston Pops playing of the 1812 Overture mark the day.. But there are some people in our area for whom Independence Day is a doubly-special celebration. One such person is Martina Day Stever of Bradford, who was born in Piermont on the Fourth of July. When asked what it meant to have the same birthday as the nation, she replied, “It feels very special, as everyone is celebrating. As a young child, it could easily be believed that enthusiasm was for me.” While her earliest birthdays were celebrated at home with nothing more exciting than sparklers, she was and still is drawn to the parade at Woodsville. Now a senior citizen, Martina’s birthday dinner still includes those Yankee Fourth favorites of new potatoes and peas in milk and strawberry shortcake.

Martina’s experience may be just a bit more concentrated than most. For many, be they tourists, new residents or old timers, local Fourths allow them to experience an “old home day” feeling with birthday overtones. 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.”

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