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Early 19th-century July 4 celebrations were more community-oriented

| Sunday, June 16, 2002

The upcoming Fourth of July holiday has long been one of celebration and went through several stages in the first half of the 1800s before fireworks came on the scene.

At first, the emphasis was on patriotism, then partisan politics and religion before commercialization entered into it.

In the past century or so, some of the events that have been noteworthy on July 4 include the first auto race in Pittsburgh, at Schenley Park in 1899; the dedication of Fort Necessity's reconstruction in 1932; the sesquicentennial parade in Greensburg in 1949, when heat caused the death of two paraders and 41 persons being treated at Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg; and a similar sesquicentennial parade in Indiana in 1953.

One of the biggest celebrations was that of 100 years ago in 1902, when a huge crowd at Schenley Park turned out to see and hear President Theodore Roosevelt speak.

He was not the first national chief to highlight July 4 in southwestern Pennsylvania, however. President James Monroe spoke at the dedication of the Great Crossing bridge over the Youghiogheny River at the Fayette-Somerset border in 1818, at the peak of interest in building the National Pike.

In 1801 in Greensburg, a group of women excluded from the men's celebration met separately for their own and were toasted by the Westmoreland Cavalry at the militia observance.

Young men sometimes were excluded from the main events of their elders, such as in 1818 when a party of young men "assembled on the banks of the Monongahela for their own commemoration."

Black Americans also held separate celebrations, often like those of their white neighbors, to demonstrate their ability and willingness to be good citizens. Some Catholic groups, then a much smaller part of the population before extensive immigration, also observed the Fourth separately, especially in Pittsburgh.

As the early 1800s got under way, celebrants made the holiday a feature for displays of patriotism.

Usually following a pattern, the public often gathered at a courthouse or a church for a prayer and a speech. Then came dinner and festivities, sometimes in a shady picnic grove. After eating came a formal program and "toasts," often accompanied by music, cheers and cannon and gunfire.

Militia companies were quite active in that era of their popularity. In 1823 in Greensburg, the Greensburg Blues assembly "seemed composed of brothers of the same family — all was hilarity, mirth and good humor. It was a joyous burst of pleasure at the remembrance of a great day which gave birth to an independent people."

Oddly enough, the Pittsburgh shoemakers, in stating their fete to a nearby assembly of the Pittsburgh Light Artillery in 1826, toasted in humorous fashion: "The Pittsburgh Light Artillery — may they be charged with the soles of true Republicanism, and primed with the best American uppers."

In fact, the noted Ringgold Cavalry unit was organized in Beallsville in Washington County as a feature of the 1847 gathering there.

Some other highlights of those 1800-to-1850 observances:

In the West Alexander area of Washington County in 1810, many hands of the leading area farm operation "were treated to a ploughing match and the construction of a shepherd's lodge." After its completion in the early afternoon, the farm operator treated the gathering with a variety of fermented and distilled liquor, then at the tables with products of the farms.

The emergence of partisan politics during the 1820s brought a transformation as some communities promoted fragmentation and started some recreational aspects.

In 1840 in Ligonier, a Democratic celebration began its festivities "after all those who preferred to go to the hard cider (Whig) celebration had left their ranks."

That same year, Uniontown Democrats (when the definition of the parties differed from later) avowed that "there cannot be a Republican heart that does not beat high at the very mention of the Fourth of July."

In 1835, Whigs in Pittsburgh nominated an electoral ticket at a quite partisan Fourth of July get-together.

In 1843, the young gentlemen and ladies of Monongahela City emphasized the role of women in maintaining the republic.

An 1828 letter to the editor in Greensburg objected that the name of Gen. George Washington was mentioned in but one toast, while 15 were given to Gen. Andrew Jackson.

Many abolition societies chose the Fourth as an annual meeting day because of its association with freedom and liberty.

Partisan political aspects largely disappeared since many considered the holiday as a national unifying festival.

Temperance became popular in the 1840s, even among some military units. Westmoreland County's Phoenix Guards, who had previously been a part of military celebrations, by 1847 joined the Methodist Sunday School celebration.

During those early years, religion often was part of the celebration, with gratitude to God expressed for help in the Revolution and since.

In 1843 in Pigeon Creek, Washington County, after an opening prayer at the Presbyterian Church, the celebrants retired to a grove for refreshments and heard the Declaration of Independence read before returning to the church for more prayer, music and a membership drive by the local temperance society.

Community celebrations began to diminish in the late 1840s. Commercialization of the holiday began to appear with early recreation and amusement parks, steamboat pleasure excursions (particularly from Pittsburgh) and other diversions such as circus performances.

Fireworks also came in the 1840s, forcing some events to warn patrons that they would not be tolerated.

Caterers joined the holiday scene. Sports and sporting events, while always popular, became more so in the 1840s. (It was on July 4, 1866, that the first Penn State intercollegiate athletic event was held, a baseball game with Lock Haven.)

By 1847, the Fourth in Pittsburgh was getting so raucous that the police were asked to contain the "bustle and excitement."

That half-century was a major one in July 4 history, but many changes have happened since, such as the rise of uncontrolled fireworks before restraint, and many more individual or small-group observances replacing community celebrations.

The latter usually are limited to evening fireworks displays. There are also a lot fewer fireworks injuries than in the 1930s and '40s, fortunately.


In the early days of electric light operation in Pittsburgh, customers were charged on a flat-rate basis (per lamp) in the 1880s.

Those lamps were considered such a good advertisement that they were never turned off.

The light company lost money on this arrangement. A measure of use (the meter) was developed. By turning the lights off in the daytime, the light company's cost was greatly reduced.


In 1853, Jefferson Township in Washington County was created, a June 16 event of the past.

On this date in 1858, the national founder of the Boy Scouts of America, William D. Boyce, was born southeast of New Kensington in Westmoreland County.

Tragedy causes remembrance of the date in 1890. That year, 31 men were killed in the Hill Farm mine explosion near Dunbar in Fayette County.

The first successful airplane flight in Pittsburgh was in 1912, when aviator Earl Sandt of Brookville successfully exhibited his flight talents.

Fifteen persons were killed in 1926 in a train wreck at Grays Station in northern Derry Township, Westmoreland County.

Weather made the news in 1970, when six inches of torrential downpour in 48 hours caused local flooding in the Latrobe-Ligonier-Derry-Blairsville area.


A distinguished member of the Allegheny County bar for whom Hampton Township was named was Moses Hampton Jr., born in 1802 to Moses and Hannah Van Atta Hampton in Beaver County. Quakers, they had settled there from New Jersey on a donation land tract after the Revolution.

Moses Jr. attended Washington College and was admitted to the bar at still another southwestern Pennsylvania location, Fayette County.

Attracted to Pittsburgh, he moved there in 1839 and soon was elected to Congress.

Holder of an LL.D. degree from Western University of Pennsylvania, the predecessor of Pitt, he retired in 1874 after serving as president judge. He lived in Wilkinsburg.

Hampton Township was created in 1861 and named for him, at a time when many new townships were named for judges. But Hampton apparently didn't live in Hampton!


When Minnesota won the national collegiate football championship in 1936, there were some interesting comparisons that made such schools as St. Vincent and Slippery Rock look good. That year, incidentally, Pitt was ranked third.

Minnesota lost to Northwestern, 6-0, despite its season otherwise. Notre Dame bounced Northwestern, 26-6, the Panthers whipped Notre Dame, 26-0, and Duquesne took a major upset from Pitt in the only Panther loss, 7-0.

What made it such an unusual year was that West Virginia Wesleyan registered a 2-0 major upset of the Dukes. St. Vincent bested Wesleyan, 6-0, and Slippery Rock shut out Westminster, which had also won over Wesleyan.

Another obscure bit of football history comes from the pros. Fans of professional history may recall the name of Oorang Indians from the 1922-23 National Football League. Then, when Ohio was a hotbed of the pros, that was a team of all Indians, including Jim Thorpe. Where was the team based• Despite its NFL franchise, in a town of fewer than 1,000 persons, LaRue, located west of Marion, Ohio.

The item of a few weeks back on the touchdown origin amused some readers. Maybe they really wanted to throw a yellow flag, a penalty signal that got a start in the 1930s to replace the difficult-to-hear horn.

In October 1941, Youngstown State coach D.V. Beede asked his wife to sew four flags from some old red- and white-striped cloth. Drapery weights were placed in one corner.

He convinced the officials to use them in that year's game with Oklahoma City, and the flag idea caught on from that, although it didn't become universal until 1974, when all levels of football settled on a yellow flag with a weight.

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