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Long ago: Fourth of July September 3, 2012

Posted by Jenny in history, memoir.
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This is taken from a memoir entitled “When I Was a Girl” by my grandmother, Sybil Crowninshield Kennedy Bennett. The series starts here and alternates every other post.

In the middle of the Fourcorners [where the two main streets of Cato intersected] on the night before the Fourth of July the boys and young men of the town would build a bonfire and shoot off an old cannon a few times. They also took the large circular saw from the sawmill, owned by my Uncle Dave Crowninshield, and put it on a pole through the hole in the center. Several boys carried the heavy thing on their shoulders through the town while others hit it with a big hammer, making a tremendous crashing sound like elephant-sized cymbals. The church bells were also rung at midnight. We girls used to have a slumber party at one of our houses and would get up in the night and go in a group to see and hear these mysteries. It was wonderful scary fun.

Sometimes on the evening of the Fourth there would also be fireworks from the square. This occurred when there was a Fourth of July celebration in our town. The neighboring towns took turns in having the celebration, Meridian, Victory, and Ira. The celebration meant every flag in town was displayed. We had one which my mother made, sewing every one of the forty-five stars on by hand. It was four or five feet wide and eight or nine feet long, and hung on our porch from the starry end.

We children would each have money for celebrating, usually 25 cents. It was a delicate matter, requiring much consideration to decide what part should be spent for firecrackers and what for ice cream or candy. I was lucky, as Mildred and Celia were afraid to shoot off their firecrackers so I had plenty to use. There was no lack of noise. We would sit on the edge of the grass by the dirt road and throw them into the street after lighting them from a burning stick of punk. There was not much traffic early in the morning. Later on, people began to come and the streets were full of buggies and democrat wagons carrying whole families. [A democrat wagon was a light flat farm wagon with two or more seats, pulled by horses.]

The parade, strictly homemade, began at ten a.m. The flag bearer went ahead. Sometimes old Peter Brown came with him, playing on his fife. He had been a fifer in the Civil War. He was accompanied by a snare drummer, who I think was also a Civil War veteran. Then the Cato band. Cato had the best and biggest band around. They practiced every week at the Milk Station, a discreet distance from the sleeping village. Then came floats, delivery or lumber wagons decorated with colored bunting with exhibits from the hardware or drygoods stores. There were buggies in which rode the President of the village (not Mayor), the Speaker of the Day and the Assemblyman. The Eastern Stars and Rebeccas, feminine contingent of the Masons and Oddfellows, as well as some Old Soldiers (we never called them Veterans at that time) also rode in democrats or lumber wagons. Usually bunting was put thru the spokes of the wheels, in and out, and a strip hung along the sides. The horses had rosettes or small flags in their bridles. Decorated bicycles were also in evidence and even a horse or two with riders in costume. I remember being dressed as “Aunt Sam” to accompany “Uncle Sam” and dancing thru the streets with him in the parade.

There might be quite a group of people dressed for example as Eva and Uncle Tom, or Lincoln, or George and Martha Washington, or just made up as funny as possible, as a tramp or Indian or policeman. There was a carriage of girls dressed in white with red, white and blue sashes and carrying bouquets to furnish the love and beauty theme. I even rode in this.

After this thriller which progressed from one end of the town by the depot up the hill, past the stores, and past our house up the other hill at walking speed, the next excitement was the Oration of the Day. A stand would be erected on the Fourcorners or at least one would be pulled out on wheels from wherever it had been stored. Here in the hot sun or wind and even rain, a patriotic and stirring address an hour long would be given, sometimes by Matt Gaffney, a humorous and patriotic Irishman who lived by giving such lectures. At other times by the Assemblyman or a minister. Rain, of course, could spoil it all. The shooting off of so much gunpowder was supposed by some people to cause rain—a bad combination for Fourth of July celebrations.

Later in the day came the Ice Cream Social given by the churches. There was a hot dog stand run by some Lodge members. We called them Coney Islands. The stores were open and shopping went on all day by the out-of-town visitors. Finally, in the evening came the fireworks, the Roman candles, rockets and the set pieces, a flag or a bouquet of flowers, lighting up the summer evening sky, still hardly dark. One terrible time, the box of fireworks was set on fire by a spark. Then men on the high stand had to jump for their lives and the whole grand thing burst into a towering gigantic show. It was all over in a few minutes. I was with my father and we got against a wall with me under his coat, between him and the wall, and we escaped unharmed, as did most of the disappointed spectators. Of course, it could have been a tragedy if some person or building had been set on fire.

Sweeping up after a parade.