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Fabulous July 4th Celebrations of Yesteryear!

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - June 28, 2011

The second president of the United States, John Adams, said this about the 4th of July: “I believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival,” he wrote his wife, Abigail. “It ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other…”

It seems only fitting that the symbol of the Lakes Region, the Mount Washington, started its lake life on the 4th of July. The Mount made her first trip on July 4, 1872, with Alton Bay, Meredith, Center Harbor, Long Island and Wolfeboro on her schedule of ports.

Another dramatic staple of the Lakes Region was the summer stock theatre business. To mark the start of the 1960 summer season at the Lakes Region Playhouse in Gilford, new curtains were drawn apart on July 4, “for the opening of the 11th season by Producer Alton Wilkes in a neat curtain speech. The star of the opening night show was Tom Poston, known as a famous panelist on To Tell the Truth. Poston was on stage at the Playhouse starring in The Male Animal, a James Thurber “college comedy with a message.”

In 1948, those in charge of the Gilmanton, NH Fourth of July festivities had a big problem on their hands. They had to find a “snappier” parade marshal. That wasn’t the only issue they faced in the sleepy little town as the birthday of our country loomed. They had to raise the price of the dance from 60 cents to $1.50, and the day overall saw a financial loss of about $23.00.

These things seem laughable today, but they were just a few of the many headaches local officials had to contend with when coming up with ever new and exciting ways to celebrate the Fourth of July.

The holiday has always held a place of honor in NH towns large and small. Picnics and firecrackers were the staples for the celebration in days of old, along with town band concerts.

A Laconia poster from 1876 by the General Order No. 1184 invites the Brotherhood of Ancient, Antique, Honorable & Dishonorable Fusillers to appear on the morning of July 4, at 7 o’clock, armed and equipped in all the proper and improper costumes you can obtain. This was an invitation to enter the 1876 parade, which would include such highlights as a detachment of police under the command of Serg. Boss Tweed, a Grand Commander, Gen. Gee Washington, with his renowned staff; a brigade band, a cavalry corpse, an infancy corpse and Revolutionary pensioners.

Over 100 years ago on July 4, 1894, the holiday was quieter. According to the Laconia Democrat, Laconia merchants agreed to close their businesses at 12 noon on the 4th. This was so that one and all could attend the Ancient Order of the Hibernian picnic at Lake Shore Park, where $200 worth of fireworks would top off a day anticipated to bring “a monster crowd of four or five thousand people, largely from Concord and Manchester and low rates have been obtained on the railroads.”

The celebrations at Lake Shore Park were marked with all kinds of races and athletic contests, bands concerts during the day and evening, and an orchestra, which would “provide melody for dancing in the pavilion.” A genuine Rhode Island clambake was also offered. Prof. Hinchey of Boston provided the fireworks display.

If you were planning a 4th of July picnic in the late 1800s, what prices would you face at the grocers? A dozen eggs cost 16 cents, potatoes were 75 cents a bushel, and chicken was 10 – 17 cent per pound!

At Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, the brothers and sisters got into the spirit of the Fourth of July when in 1916 they held an Independence Day Parade. That year the parade was held on July 6, two days after the actual holiday, due to rain on the Fourth. From two until three in the afternoon, costumed participants promenaded through the grounds of the village. Each marcher represented one of the trades or some other important aspect of the Shaker community. At 4:30 in the afternoon, the Shakers ended the day with a “Mother Goose’s Grab Bag Party.”

In the Shaker parade were such displays as the Garden Float with real pots and pans and smiling paper potatoes and apples decorating the float. The children who lived at Shaker Village must have loved the parade and celebration, and at least one child was dressed to resemble a canning jar filled with peas! There were prizes for costumed participants and floats, and it can be sure some of the Shaker’s delicious blueberry pie and perhaps even homemade ice cream was served to celebrate the day.

Parades meant big excitement in early days, as well as in today’s world. In days gone by, such as the 1920s, people seldom left the family farm. Going together to see the Fourth of July parade was a much-anticipated event.

Towns such as Gilmanton put a lot of thought into the Fourth of July festivities, and in the history of that town it is noted that in 1949 a band from Rochester was hired to entertain during the parade.

In Gilmanton, a dinner held on the Fourth was a big part of the festivities, and in the 1950s, between 200-400 people attended the meal each year. For a few years, a loss was reported after money was accounted for; it must have been very difficult for a small town to pull off such an event.

Luckily, by the 1960s Gilmanton’s Fourth of July celebrations were thriving. In 1961, the theme for the day was Gilmanton First Family – 1761. A committee decorated a float to commemorate celebrating the 200th anniversary of the first family to settle in Gilmanton. That year the event was billed as an old-fashioned Fourth of July. As well as the free dinner, there was a variety show that was to last one hour, with 12 performers. Part of the fun was a foot race, tug of war, bike races, money mixed in a pile of sawdust, and of course, a softball game.

Fifty years ago, on July 4, 1944, Lakes Regioners and tourists alike were gripped by the recent Normandy invasion. Many had received word of fallen loved ones, while others anxiously awaited news of those who were fighting so far away.

Perhaps the 4th of July took on greater significance that year. Once again, our countrymen were fighting in the name of freedom. A full-page advertisement in the Laconia Evening Citizen’s July 3rd issue bore the headline “Independence Day 1776 – 1944.” An excerpt from the copy read: “All hail, on this Independence Day of 1944 to those brave men and women from this community who are giving their all for the principles of freedom and democracy laid down by our forefathers in 1776.”

Along with this serious message, another headline read “Hundreds Here For Over the 4th”. In that story it was reported that supplies of food were running low as vacationers crowded into the Lakes Region. No vacancy signs were hung at most hotels and cottages and noon trains before the holiday were run in two sections to take care of the huge number of travelers. An Independence Day eve dance at Irwin’s Winnipesaukee Gardens had about 1,200 people dancing the night away. During the 1944 Independence Day, people everywhere were hungry to escape the misery and worry of war and seek out the recreation and fun of the Lakes Region, if only for a day or two. 

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