The Glorious Fourth in Acton
In honor of Independence Day, we looked back at how the people of Acton celebrated the Fourth in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Concord Enterprise, a local newspaper, regularly reported on the celebration. It was a day for gathering with family and friends. Many businesses were closed, and most people were able to enjoy a day of leisure. The morning might start with a “horribles” parade with outlandish or comic costumes. Picnics were popular; people liked to gather at Lake Nagog, and some took the opportunity to fish there. Other people would head to Concord to picnic at Lake Walden. Some might host family reunions. None was likely to top the 1896 gala hosted by Adelbert and O.W. Mead who had a railroad car added to the local train to bring in 55 members of their family from Fitchburg to join the 60 who gathered at the Meads’ homes in West Acton.
Those craving a little more action had plenty of choices. Some entered their horses in races at Ayer or elsewhere; friends and neighbors would go to cheer them on. Baseball was a popular activity, either to play or to watch. The Acton team would often play neighboring towns on the 4th. In 1896, for example, the team played a double-header against Marlborough that drew five hundred spectators to the afternoon game. As bicycles became popular in the mid-1890s, road races were held either in Acton or neighboring towns.
Unlikely though it may seem today, in 1900, there was a local yacht club that arranged a July 4th race on Lake Nagog. The newspaper reported, “The yacht race seems to have been more of a failure than a success as the boats broke down or met with some mishap near the start, D. H. Hall’s being the only one making a successful run.”
On the evening of the Fourth, private citizens would often provide a fireworks display. For several years in the 1890s, South Acton was treated to fireworks by the Lothrop family. Cyrus Dole provided fireworks for a large crowd on the common in 1897 followed by cold drinks and an open house at his newly renovated summer home across from the library. Another place to view fireworks during the 1890s was Wright's Hill in West Acton. An article from 1892 mentioned people on Wright's Hill watching a hot air balloon going up and down miles away and, in the evening, seeing fireworks being set off all around the horizon.
Acton’s former residents' activities on the day of the Fourth do not sound radically different from today’s. However, most people’s experiences of the night before the 4th were quite different. Year after year, “Young America” or “the small boy” would, in the name of “patriotism,” make noise throughout the evening of the July 3rd and create a ruckus at midnight. Tin horns were blown, and fireworks were set off. (“Crackers,” “cannons” and “torpedoes” were common.) As described in 1890, “pandemonium reigned supreme on the street until after midnight.” At midnight, the “boys” would often ring church bells, usually without permission. In 1897, a report in Acton Center said, “The selectmen had no special police on duty this year and the irrepressible youth took the gladsome opportunity of ringing the bells at midnight unmolested.” In 1895, the boys’ entertainment was repeatedly ringing the bell of the South Acton church and disappearing before the constable could catch them. In West Acton in 1900, the whistle at Hall Brothers’ pail factory was added to the din. It was such a long-standing custom that most people were resigned to the noise up until midnight. As one writer put it in 1892, “Well, we were all boys once, consequently were in full sympathy with the occasion.” (The writer was quite unconcerned about the sleep of the half of the population who were never boys and would not have been nostalgically remembering their days in the noisy throng.)
Unfortunately, Young America was not always content to stop the noise at midnight. Writers mentioned them “making night hideous and sleep impossible” (1890) and ringing the bell “at intervals in an almost vain attempt we suppose to make the sun rise” (1891). In Acton Center, for at least two years, an impromptu “fife and drum corps” decided to stage a concert of patriotic songs after midnight. A few people spoke out about the rights of nonparticipants. One writer called the carousals disgraceful (1898), while another (1894) pointed out that “there are rights for all in this land of ours, and one may not encroach upon the other, though there be but one day in the year that calls forth such uproarious demonstration and general jubilee by the boys or the exercise of authority by law-abiding citizens. Let each respect the others’ privileges, and remember, boys, that though all gentlemen are not Americans the true American citizen is a gentleman under all circumstances.” Judging from the newspapers, gentlemanliness was not everyone's top priority on the night before the 4th.
The townspeople were much more united in opposition to destruction of property. The expectation was that if the “boys” caused damage, they would fix it. In 1889, the South Acton correspondent reported “no serious damage excepting that the waves of sound created by the cannon were too much for the window glass in some residences, but the boys enjoyed the fun and no doubt everything will be made satisfactory.” In 1895, a group of young men egged Ed Banks’ house in South Acton. Mr. Banks informed them that they needed to clean it up. “It was a rather hard job, but a coat of paint will finish the work.” 1895 seems to have been a busy year; gates and other items were disarranged and an effigy was hung from the telegraph wire multiple times. In 1897, “the natives found a great display in the square in the morning, the most conspicuous object being South Acton’s ancient fire engine.... A number of wagons, single wheels and outhouses were also on exhibition.” The young men also cut the rope used to ring the bell at Tuttles, Jones & Wetherbee’s store. South Acton’s hook and ladder truck was taken in 1898, eliciting a threat from a Selectman that if the known leaders did not return it, they would suffer. (It was returned.) Even less acceptable was trouble from other towns, prompting the comment in 1893 that “when a party of men from another town come here and go to pulling down flags and demolishing chimneys, they should be severely dealt with.”
A feature of old Acton’s celebrations was the prevalence of fireworks. In 1894, an enterprising South Acton postmaster decided to sell fireworks, which elicited an objection from the newspaper correspondent: “Fireworks in our post office? It would do well for the postmaster of this village to read up the law on this subject. The selectmen of a town have no right to license them to be sold in a post office. Please read what Uncle Sam says about it.”
With many incendiaries going off, fire was a real concern. In 1895, a “suspicious” fire occurred on the Fourth in South Acton. This would have brought back memories of the previous July 4th when Hudson experienced a devastating fire started by boys with firecrackers. The fire wiped out 40 buildings over at least five acres in the heart of Hudson, including factories, shops, stables, five large halls, Y.M.C.A. rooms, a well-known photographic studio, the telephone station, and the post office. No one would have wanted a similar occurrence in Acton.
The other major issue with fireworks was the possibility of injury. In 1889, Acton news reported that Herbert Clark, age 9, had mixed powder with dirt in a tin can and set it off; it exploded in his face. In 1895, Robert Randall lost his left hand firing a ”cannon.” An 1898 article mentioned that the year’s revelries had resulted in a few lost eyebrows. In 1899, Sheldon Littlefield was quite severely burned on his hand and face by the explosion of powder in a can. These injuries were not unique to Acton. In 1893, the local paper published a listing of the numerous “Patriotic Patients Treated at the Emergency Hospital” in Boston that year, most from careless handling of fireworks that included burns to hands and faces, lacerations, several missing fingers, and possible permanent loss of sight.
In 1915, Acton celebrated differently. A South Acton committee planned a large-scale, organized 24 hours of events. Because the 4th fell on a Sunday, the celebration took place the next day. On the night of July 4th, a large bonfire of railroad ties that had been dragged to the top of a hill burned for nearly two hours. There was also a well-attended but orderly dance at the Exchange Hall. (A couple of individuals who drank or used obscene language found themselves in the lockup.) Though firecrackers seem to have been accepted in the evening (“the sound of exploding crackers made it appear like a miniature battle”), the "pandemonium" of former years was discouraged. In the early morning hours on Sunday, there was “the discharge of a few isolated fire crackers. As that was not as the plans had been arranged, the newly uniformed policeman called the patriotic spirited boys’ attention to the fact.”
A big parade in the morning drew hundreds of spectators from neighboring towns. Of special note in the paper were the floats by Acton businesses; A. Merriam Co. (piano stools) showing the history of their products, Finney & Hoit (merchants) displaying a summer kitchen, and South Acton Woolen Company, showing off a large float with sections, one for live sheep, then wool, then rags, then shoddy, and finally cloth with a sign “Made from Shoddy,” a South Acton product. Grocer J. S. Moore displayed live animals and a sausage machine. A number of businesses were represented by their delivery wagons. Acton’s Road Commissioner and firemen displayed town vehicles. Other participants were the Boy Scouts, the “famous old Acton band,” and a twelve-member drum corps. A school float carried many of the young schoolchildren. A large number of Camp Fire Girls appeared with a tepee on an auto. There was a Peace Float with about 20 young ladies in white dresses. According to the paper, the suffrage auto carried several young women displaying sentiments of "Down with liquor. Don’t be a pinhead. Give woman a vote. Give women the vote and they will clean the town.” (Women apparently had finally found a way to make themselves heard on the Fourth.) Later, games and track-and-field competitions were held, and fireworks completed the day.
If one stopped reading in 1915, one might think that Acton’s celebration had become completely sedate. However, the South Acton Enterprise correspondent in 1920 reported on “cannon" that were "fired off in several places in the village causing much damage by breaking glass. At the home of George Ames, School st., two windows were blown out and one at the house on the opposite side of the street. The glass in several windows at George Worster’s was cracked. It seems a great wonder that the beautiful windows of the Congregational church nearby did not suffer damage. Several windows at Acton Centre were also broken in the same way. The newly appointed policeman was right on his job and it is due to him and assistants that things were not much worse and the night made hideous.” Old habits die hard.
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