Across Salem this week, many will celebrate Independence Day by barbecuing with friends, watching the fireworks at Riverfront Park, heading to the St. Paul Rodeo, or savoring hot dogs and snow cones at one of the numerous celebrations in the region.
These are some of today’s traditions, but we at Salem Is couldn’t help but wonder, have local residents always celebrated this way? And what happened on some of the momentous Independence Days in the city’s history?
We dug through the microfilm newspaper archives at the public library and discovered these gems from the Fourth of Julys of Salem’s past.
Salem celebrated the 90th anniversary of America’s independence “with much more spirit and enthusiasm than we have usually observed for several years,” according to The Oregon Statesman.
A procession through town included music from the Aurora Brass Band; numerous firemen, carriages and other marchers; and a “car load of thirty-six little girls, each waving the stars and stripes, and elegantly decked with flowers and evergreens.”
The day wasn’t without incident, however. Only a year after the Confederates surrendered in the Civil War, the celebration included a few protesting “Jeff Davis Democrats” — and the Statesman didn’t shy away from shunning them:
“One man … declared that any man who would march after ‘that flag’ (pointing to the national banner as it passed) ‘ought to be shot.’ … His blatant treason could not be tolerated here, and a lot of Union men took him in charge and forcibly placed him over the river. … Enemies of the Government ought to be taught by an illustration of Lynch law, that the loyal men will not permit traitors to insult the flag on the Fourth of July.”
And then there was an 1866 version of today’s fireworks mishaps:
“Accident — A Mr. Barnard had his arm badly injured by the premature discharge of a cannon, in Salem, on the Fourth; but it will not require amputation.”
In contrast to the patriotic fervor of a decade earlier, Salem apparently did little to recognize the nation’s centennial. At least, that was the view of The Oregon Statesman’s editor, who wrote a column chastising local residents for their apathy:
“Being accustomed to see our National Holiday ushered in in a manner in keeping with our national birth, I naturally ask myself where is the enterprise of this people, who prefer to enrich other towns than make an effort for the interest of home? … While every village and hamlet in the great nation lifts up the voice of rejoicing hailing this glorious Natal Morn, our fair city sits solitary — not even the ringing of bell.”
The paper went on to laud the festive celebration in nearby Scio, which drew “a dense crowd fully prepared to celebrate the Centennial 4th of July in due and ancient form.”
Along with a barbecue featuring roast oxen, sheep and “porkers,” the celebration included a procession with music and an evening crowd who “tripped the ‘light fantastic,’ till the ‘wee sma’ hours.’”
On the nation’s sesquicentennial, The Oregon Statesman’s coverage looked much like today’s stories of the Fourth. “Holiday Autos Fill Highways,” declared a front-page headline. “Thousands Celebrate Holiday by Trips to Beaches and Mountains. Road Caution is Urged.”
The popularity of the auto meant that Salem residents were much less likely to stay at home for the Fourth — and those who remained in the city “stayed in, leaving the streets particularly deserted.”
Salem police warned about fireworks accidents, ordering that “skyrockets must only be shot off on the banks of the river where their shafts will fall into the stream.”
And all those travelers? Apparently the holiday weekend left them weary. On Tuesday, July 6, the Statesman reported: “Salem residents again took up their normal lives today, intent on getting back to work in order to ‘rest up’ from the strenuous recreation which marked the past three days.”
In the midst of World War II, most of Oregon celebrated the Fourth quietly, according to an Associated Press article in The Oregon Statesman. None of the local events included fireworks. A full-page Statesman ad pictured a flag and asked, “What Did You Do Today To Keep This Flag Flying? Buy War Bonds.”
Salem still played host to the largest Independence Day celebration in its history — events included a grand parade, a barbecue with 1,200 pounds of dressed steer beef, and flyovers from a Navy blimp.
But the children’s parade stole the show. Dressed in a wide variety of costumes, the young marchers competed for more than $100 in “war stamp prizes,” but it was tough to give out their awards. They “literally fled to the park, where a truckful of ice-cream filled paper cups was ready to dispense promised treats.”
Over at the Oregon State Prison, the inmates kept things festive with their annual “Pen Relays,” “a full day’s program of track, field and boxing contests.” According to the Statesman, “the inmates had once again proven themselves capable sports promoters, top-notch athletes and first-class hosts.”
Salemites were a bit confused about how to observe one aspect of America’s bicentennial: a national, synchronized bell-ringing.
President Gerald Ford urged the nation’s residents to ring bells on July 4 “for a period of two minutes, signifying our two centuries of independence,” starting at 2 p.m. EDT — the same time that the Liberty Bell chimed in 1776 to proclaim the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
But that was before the nation was divided into four time zones — an issue that led to disagreement about when to ring the bells on the bicentennial.
The American Revolution Bicentennial Commission of Oregon encouraged communities to ring their bells at 11 a.m. PDT, “to correspond with the Philadelphia timing.”
But the Elks Club urged everyone to begin ringing at noon in their own time zones, and Oregon Gov. Bob Straub also called for noon bells.
Across Salem, churches struggled with what to do. At the State Capitol, the building superintendent was “taking no chances,” according to the Statesman Journal. “He will ring the bell at the Capitol for two minutes at 11 a.m., on a test basis. Then, he said, the ‘real thing’ will begin at noon.”
Salem Is co-editor Sarah Evans still isn’t sure how she’ll celebrate Independence Day, but it likely will involve homemade ice cream.