By Peg Brown
“The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival…It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews (sic), Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more…”
—John Adams to his wife Abigail in a letter written on July 3, 1776
The Fourth of July celebrations of our youth were, by today’s standards, relatively tame—and, by today’s laws—somewhat illegal. The annual anticipation of the cousins gathered for the summer at Camp centered on an early morning trip into Morristown, N.Y. (pop. 300) for the annual parade and chicken barbeque later at the fire station. I don’t remember any fireworks staged by the town—fireworks were reserved for the children back at camp as twilight fell. (Actually, with full disclosure, we never went to the barbeque—too many of us and too expensive for our family.)
The parade down Main Street has changed very little. It’s just that our memories have enhanced the experience to include numerous marching bands, majorettes in tall white boots with big tassels (no dance teams), floats always pulled by a farm tractor from which candy was thrown to the crowd and the highlight—always at the end of the parade for obvious reasons—the horses and riders decked out in dazzling Western silver and gear. We observed the parade from our perches on the still remaining concrete stairs lining one side of the road. We always got a front row seat because our aunt and uncle owned the restaurant smack in the middle of the parade route.
As the first hint of the famous St. Lawrence River sunset, we began to persist in asking our elders to begin the fireworks display. I use the word “display” loosely. Our revelry consisted of one box of sparklers per child, lit one at a time by an adult. Our creativity led us to wave the sparkler through the air, attempting to write a fleeting word or draw a recognizable image. Occasionally we would pool our limited resources and put six or seven sparkers along a stone wall by the river, stepping back to admire the colored flames and sparks as the eight inches of iron, titanium, or aluminum sputtered to the ground. There might have been one or two Roman candles, but the majority of the noise was provided by strips of caps crushed between two stones. As our celebration wound to a close, sleepy children drifted toward camp—with adults breathing a sigh of relief that no one suffered a more severe injury than a superficial burn (soothed by rubbing butter on the wound).
The music of our Fourth of July celebration was entirely predictable. The flutes of the marching bands dominated the rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, a song that dates to the pre-Revolutionary War era. “The Star Spangled Banner”, another wartime melody, was rarely heard during the parade, as it was difficult to play and requires a certain protocol of standing, removing hats and saluting. Other favorites of the bands in the Morristown parade included several John Philip Sousa marches, including the “Stars and Stripes Forever”, just one of 136 marches this Marine composed.
Fast forward to Independence Day today. It’s estimated, according to census data, that almost 317 million Americans could celebrate the Fourth this year—a far cry from the 2.5 million Americans that were around in 1776. Across the United States, elaborate pyrotechnic displays, accompanied by professional orchestras and coordinated sound tracks entertain hundreds of thousands in New York, Boston and Washington DC. But in small towns everywhere, extended and blended families and their friends still gather at the camp, around fire pits, in fields and backyards to celebrate the long honored traditions of a traditional Fourth of July.