Americans have always had a truly intimate love affair with their great national holiday of Independence. It has been celebrated in many different ways since earliest times.
I would personally have loved to go back in time to visit those days and see exactly what happened. Old accounts of July 4th celebrations speak of "Illuminations" which lit up the night skies of the bigger towns and cities. Such illuminations included a lot of fireworks, candles in windows, especially along the main streets while lesser communities which could not afford to buy pyrotechnics came out to light huge bonfires, probably eagerly set and attended by all the local kids and young people.
Recently I heard that popular celebrations in New England used huge pyramids made of barrels stacked as much as 40 high before being set afire. This probably required an all-year-round effort to acquire the barrels, just as Philadelphia's Mummers Day parade and New Orleans' Mardi Gras parades require a constant year- round effort. Yet I have long wondered what kind of special celebrations might have once been common here in Chattanooga. My mom was born here in 1895 and never made mention of any special community celebratrion - same as my dad who came here in 1913, living in the immediate downtown area until he married in 1929. Perhaps Chattnooga had no such community event, leaving every individual to his or her own devices as to how to celebrate. I think they may have settled for a box lunch on either Lookout Mountain or down in Chickamauga Park; am not sure, although those were some pretty "hot" locations a century ago!
By my time there was Lake Winnie - always a great attraction for kids - and their fireworks drew multitudinous crowds every year - for the entire day, well before fireworks time. Back then there was no "gate"; you simply parked your car under the many shady trees (even as now), and headed for either the pool or the host of "rides". (Their very popular pool of my day was exactly on the site of the present merry-go-round, or carousel). Mom and pop cooked your lunch on one of the many barbecue pits while you played, going to find you when it was all ready. Lake Winnie was privately owned, of course, while East Lake Park was city -owned. I do not know if the latter park ever had fireworks, but I personally remember it as being a kind of oasis for young people of the 1940's generation, and would have been a great venue for some kind of pyrotechnical display. Warner Park, city owned, may have had fireworks. though for all its popularity I do not remember if it had fireworks for the Fourth. As the city grew, following several annexations, new communities sprang up, which sponsored their own fireworks, farther away from center city.
As I've told you before, my grade-school years were exactly contiguous with those of the war years of World War Two. I was in first grade in 1941, second grade in 1942, etc. The U.S. Government ginned up a lot enthusiasm for the "war effort" (a term we used over-and-over again to keep the war on our minds - ever thinking about our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, cousins and aunts who might be actually fighting in that war). To help achieve that end, we learned all manner of patriotic songs in school (which I still sing to myself in the shower!) We could all sing at least the first stanza of the "Star Spangled Banner", "America the Beautiful", "America", and maybe some others as well. These songs were appropriate for any time of the year, of course, but they were especially ready - made for any celebration on the Fourth. They are still appropriate in the present age - as for example when you board your return flight after two weeks in Budapest and you hear the majestic strains of "America the Beautiful" - it's pretty emotional, folks! While learning those songs at Anna B. Lacey Grammar School we were also taught a good number of songs from the First World War by teachers who clearly remembered that earlier war. Of course we had to know the famous songs for all the Services: Army, Navy, "Army Air Corps" (now the U.S. Air Force - to which I later belonged), and Marines. I wonder how many of today's youth know the words to any of those patriotic songs? Hollywood also contributed much to the "war effort" with movies to make the home folk smile and contribute to the desired spirit of Patriotism. At no point in any of my schooling here in Chattanooga were we ever made to learn the words to any other but pure American songs, or wave any other flag but 'Old Glory'. We saluted it and Pledged Allegiance to it every morning!
School was always out about a month before the Fourth, and I can imagine that if it had been included in the school year we would have learned infinitely more about our country's origins - maybe even more of the great music! Anna B. Lacey's school principal in those days was Ms. Ethel Stroud (a fine name, don't you think, for a school principal?). The school did not have a PA system, so we marched to chapel to the sound of John Philip Sousa marches played on those ancient 78 RPM records and on an equally ancient Edison wind-up "Victrola" - music which could be heard all through the long hallways, reverberating loudly around corners. Never to be thought of as "militaristic", it simply added a sort "spirit" to our marching, like we kids were just keeping in step with "the boys" - our own kinspeople - who were fighting overseas. (The two really "military" high schools in town at that time were Baylor and McCallie which each had its own distinctive uniform and had daily military drills as part of their curriculum).
Half a lifetime later I had the good fortune to work in the city of Philadelphia. There, i was not too surprised by how much more the average citizen knew about America's origins. What was not taught in school, they kind of learned by osmosis, I think. For they knew all the Founding Fathers, and how all the Founding Documents had been cobbled together - by that group of dedicated men who sat inside the Statehouse of Pennsylvania (Independence Hall) with all the windows closed (to keep the horseflies out!), wearing their woolen finery - during the months of June and early July of 1776! (THERE is devotion to a cause, if there ever was!) They had NO A/C, folks!
There were no general celebrations on that evening of July 4th, 1776, as the good news could not be tweeted or twittered out. Nor could any newspaper have spread the word on so short a notice. I can visualize, however, that the gentlemen who had just concluded those great deeds at Independence Hall might have headed straight down to the City Tavern , which contemporary accounts say did happen - not too far away (and which is still there!) to celebrate all their grand doings of the VERY FIRST Independence day! City Tavern was host to a much larger celebration the following year. Today you can still go there to be served authentic Colonial food by men and women dressed in authentic Colonial attire, and treated to an evening of chivalrous very old-fashioned manners and customs from a far courtlier age than our own.
I would really like to find out how the earliest celebrations of Independence Day were carried out here in Tennessee. Remember that we were not a state until June 1st, 1796 - twenty years after the Declaration was signed. Am sorry to say that at the time Tennessee was incorporated into the Union, our Chattanooga area was still thought of as "Indian Territory", and only Ross's Landing may have been in existence. There was one calendar month plus a few days to plan a big celebration in Tennessee after joining the Union and I keep wondering just how our new State of Tennessee might have risen to that glorious occasion?
(Chester Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)