Gary Freeze: Rowan’s July 4 festivities through the years

  • Posted: Sunday, June 30, 2013 12:45 a.m.
Lighting flashes behind the clouds as spectators stand on Bringle Ferry Road to watch the 15 minute firework show that was was being fired off from the Tamarac Marina on High Rock Lake on Satiurday night. The fireworks started about 15 minutes late after a heavy downpour settled in over the area. PHoto by Jon C. Lakey, Salisbury Post.
Lighting flashes behind the clouds as spectators stand on Bringle Ferry Road to watch the 15 minute firework show that was was being fired off from the Tamarac Marina on High Rock Lake on Satiurday night. The fireworks started about 15 minutes late after a heavy downpour settled in over the area. PHoto by Jon C. Lakey, Salisbury Post.

“The 4th of July, 1776; Hail to the Day which gave birth to a Nation! Hail to the Day on which our Fathers vindicated the rights of Freemen. May all times to come find their sons ever ready to defend so rich an inheritance.”

We can learn a lot from these words. They were spoken in 1826, and they and other expressions of patriotism in Rowan County are in the files of James S. Brawley, our Cold War-era county historian.


Brawley’s book on county history, published for our bicentennial celebration in 1953, is dated in some ways by the narrowness of its subject matter, yet his indexed notes, on file in the History Room of the Rowan Public Library, open us to new ways to see our storied past and explore our civic values. This is readily evident from his files on the local traditions of Independence Day.

1799: Brawley first found mention of a Fourth in Old Rowan in 1799, when a notice appeared in the newspaper of the time that “the Gentlemen of Salisbury” should gather to plan a celebration. We’re not sure if they did it.

This is telling, though, in a significant way. Asking the “gentlemen” of a small town in a very rural county to do the planning suggests that the same old divisions of politics and society that we experience today go back a long way into our past. As Betty McCain of Wilson, one of our state’s famed secretaries of Cultural Resources, is famously noted for saying: “Everything is partisan, darlin’.” In other words, the old adage, “the more it changes, the more it stays the same,” applies here.

How do we know? It’s all over the Brawley files.

1799, for example, was the last year that Federalists — forerunners of many conservatives today — held sway in the nation. We were in a quasi-war with France, to the opposition of the more “democratic” elements led by Thomas Jefferson. In the same year, the folks at Lowerstone Reformed Church had dedicated themselves to Christians in the tradition “of Calvin and Zwingli,” their orthodoxy an attempt to thwart the idea that, in some many words, “anyone could be elected president of the United States,” even the more secular Thomas Jefferson. Sound familiar?

The same understanding can be gleaned from the first series of serious celebrations we seem to have had, in the 1820s. Those commemorations followed a distinct pattern: a march through town by a militia group, then speeches at the courthouse, followed by a dinner with lots of toasts, the liquid kind. Sometimes there was a ball afterward.

1826: Thirteen toasts

The most significant celebration of that era was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of 1776, in 1826. Although it rained all day, and most of the crowd could not get into the courtroom to hear the speeches, it was nevertheless a gala time that extolled “this glorious fabric” that constitutes our “Union of the States.” That evening local notables gulped down 13 toasts, one for each of the original 13 states.

The subjects of the toasts show how our forefathers were tolerant of various viewpoints, at least when they got a bit into their cups. The ninth one enthused over the idea of “Internal Improvements” — code back then for the belief that the federal government should intervene into the economy with investments in infrastructure and financial institutions.

In contrast, everyone presumably also stood for the 11th toast: to “The Republics of the South,” where “wisdom and moderation perpetuate the blessings that valor has won,” code, in this case, for the principles of state’s rights that are forerunners of ideas like school vouchers and other concepts of current conservatism.

Perhaps the number of toasts got to be too much, for the Fourth went from waxing to waning by the 1830s. There seem to have been very few celebrations, except for meetings of the local Temperance Society, dedicated to stemming the rampant consumption of alcohol that, back then, exceeded even our excesses with sugary drinks today. The teetotaling Methodists also seem to have chosen the advent of July for their annual revivals.

1840s: barbecue and fireworks

1843: Partisanship also became sharper. On the Fourth in 1843, for example, Salisbury hosted two different barbecues, one at McCay’s Millpond — today’s Kelsey Scott Park — and at Henderson’s Grove — near the start of Bringle Ferry Road. This schism corresponds with the rise of the second party system advocated by a former Salisbury resident, President Andrew Jackson, where one became either a Democrat or a Whig, the latter the forerunner of the Republicans.

1848: In the days of Jacksonian politics, the so-called “era of the common man,” toasting gave way to a lot of tippling, it seemed, since “waters from nearby springs” were “used for cooling the good liquors.” In 1848, folks obviously were not getting along too well, for at the end of a long procession the Temperance society and the militia group went to separate spots for picnics. Choice and coercion seem constantly to be uneasy bedfellows.

1840: The most notable celebration of this period was part of the “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” presidential campaign of 1840, where the Whigs were out to upend the entrenched Jacksonians. Salisbury combined Independence Day with a political rally for the Whig contender William Henry Harrison. Supposedly, “the most immense crowd that ever was congregated in our state” came here on July 4. More than 1,200 saw a parade go from the courthouse to the site of the new cotton factory — next to Lincoln Park today.

The 1840 parade included the first known floats in local history. One carried “a huge broom thirty feet in circumference,” dedicated, I assume, to sweeping out the Democrats.

The rally in 1848 is the first time we also seem to have had an evening with the “uproar of paper bombs, voices, crackers, and fizing [sic] fireworks.”

1850s ‘razzle dazzle’

Rowan did not top these early Forties parades for decades. In the early 1850s, economic development trumped mere patriotism. One year, as many people as possible went to Statesville on the Fourth for a meeting to raise money for the railroad that was to go from Salisbury all the way to Memphis, Tenn. (By the way, it only got to Morganton.)

The sectional conflict that eventually caused the Civil War had a great impact on celebrations of the 1850s. The development of independent volunteer companies took center stage. “The Fantastic Rangers,” a mounted group, “afforded many of our citizens a brief but exquisite pleasure by their singularly odd costumes. They were likely copying the razzle-dazzle of the British and the French in the ill-fated Crimean War. “The eager gazers,” said a witness, “seemed never to be satisfied” as they paraded through the streets.

1857: In 1857 the newly formed Rowan Rifle Guards, established in anticipation of an abolitionist invasion, highlighted — or low lighted, depending upon the viewpoint — the holiday with a shooting demonstration. “Terrible” was the judgment of their marksmanship, although the blame was quickly placed on Northern-made rifles. The “attractive feature” of “military display” was once again regional on the eve of the Civil War, when companies from nearby counties came to parade.

Civil War

The Civil War itself suspended the celebration of the Fourth, for both political and practical reasons. However, there is one known rally during the war. On July 4, 1863, thousands gathered in Linwood across the Yadkin River in Davidson County to salute the flag: The Stars and Stripes, not the Stars and Bars. The Heroes of America, an anti-Confederate group that included several dozen Rowan residents, staged the celebration at the same time the South was losing at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.

Race became the key variable in the decline in celebrations during Reconstruction. Former slaves marched on Emancipation Day (i.e., New Year’s) to remind everyone that their erstwhile masters had used that time as “hiring week,” when human labor was let out on an annual basis. Later, Decoration Day in May became the important holiday of patriotism in town, if you were a Republican, black or white. In this period, most white Rowan citizens did little on the Fourth except work.

20th century

The restoration of white conservatism, under the guise of the Democratic Party — remember, the two parties flipped in some ways in the twentieth century — eventually revived the celebration of the Fourth in Rowan, but it took awhile. In 1883 folks went out to Hatters Shop—near today’s Dan Nicholas Park—to hear politicians speak from the stump. But, in 1889, there was no observance.

By the late years of the nineteenth century, the Fourth became more a day for ball games and picnics, with some speeches, sans the public tippling of the old days, more in tune with modern times. The prohibitionist Carrie Nation even came on the Fourth in 1907 to castigate local saloon owners. Brawley’s notes say, “Bars and cars did big business, baseball games, and fireworks.”

Brawley’s files on the Fourth end with the early 1900s, but he did find in that period some glimmers of what would become the culture that helped produce Rowan’s famous local festival. In 1907 “old soldiers (70 of them) gathered in Faith” for the Fourth. The future, as you can see, was in the process of becoming the present, but that is subject for a future essay.

Dr. Gary Freeze, a history professor at Catawba College, is the author of an eighth-grade textbook on North Carolina, and the host and writer for the series, “A Ramble Through Rowan History,” sponsored by Rowan Public Library. The latest installment, “Rowan in the Civil War,” will premiere at the library sometime in late summer.


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