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Fireworks and Festivities - Celebrating the Fourth in the 1800s

Booming of cannons, firecrackers, marching men in uniform - that was the Fourth of July of the past in Indiana County. Traditionally, celebrations were not always held in the town of Indiana itself - horses, buggies, electric cars, steam cars, trolleys, and trains aided in the transportation of large numbers of citizens leaving the town to spend the day in neighboring communities. But, whether the fireworks were in Brush Valley, Willet, or Blairsville, contemporary accounts demonstrate the extraordinary enthusiasm felt by people of the past as they celebrated those Fourths of July which are now memories in Indiana County’s past.


On July 3, the Indiana Democrat announced, “All the bells of the Borough will be rung at 6:00 a.m., at which time all who have appropriate Flags and Banners will put them to the breeze. Salutes may be fired at any time from 8 to 10 o’clock a.m.” A parade was planned, with the procession forming on Philadelphia Street, much as they do today. It included “a martial band, the soldiers of 1812, the Ladies, the Committees, and The Fire Company under the superintendence of Captain Earl.” The processession proceeded to Altman’s Orchard, where the Declaration of Independence was read, an oration heard and vocal and instrumental music presented. At 1:00 p.m., a plethora of food was brought forth from the picnic baskets. The crowd was warned that “anyone misbehaving will be excluded, and no intoxicating liquors will be tolerated within the grounds.”


The Democrat informed its readers that “a grand Fourth of July Celebration will take place at Indiana, Pa., on the approaching anniversary of the American Independence. Arrangements have been made for a Pic-nic and dinner in White’s Woods on that day, and it is expected that the occasion will be one of the great interest to all who attend.” Speeches, toast, and “amusements,” were planned, with several military companies expected. A dancing platform was set up and a “first-class band of music” provided for the dancers. “Lat all attend,” read the ad, and “make it an occasion long to be remembered.”


The June 29 edition of the Democrat was crowned with an engraving of the American eagle in honor of America’s centennial. Indiana arranged a fitting celebration for this event, featuring “a grand military and civic parade,” which included “the Union Cornet Band, Veterans of the War of 1812, Sabbath and other School Children. The group was to proceed to “the Normal School Grove,” where they were to hear “prayers, the reading of the Declaration of Independence, and an historical sketch of Indiana County,” followed by dinner. The program for the afternoon included short patriotic addresses, a gymnastic exhibition and a baseball match played by “picked nines.” An eight hundred pound steel cannon fired salutes during the day, commemorating the hundredth birthday of our country in grand style.


Brush Valley announced its plans for the Fourth in the July 3 issue of the Democrat. “A Basket Pic-nic will be held at the Cressweil School House Grove.” A large dancing platform was promised and a good band of music was to be engaged for the evening.


The newspaper revealed Indiana’s Fourth of July plans in its July 3 issue. “The procession will not move until the noon train arrives. Elegant corps badges will be provided all the old soldiers attending the celebration. The Indiana Cornet Band, after a little coaxing, has consented to favor the multitude with some of its finest tooting.” A “grand, daylight” exhibition of fireworks was planned at the Indiana Fairgrounds for the afternoon of the festivities. A second fireworks display was given later from a stand on Vinegar Hill facing south on Seventh Street. This exhibition, which promised to be “the finest ever given in this place,” was the hit of the day’s events.


On June 28, the holiday schedule for the area was announced by the Democrat in an ad which read, “Grand Fourth of July celebration at the Fairgrounds, Indiana, for the benefit of St. Bernard’s Church. Large dancing platform, elegant orchestra, and Indiana Cornet band. Meals and refreshments will be served in the Large Dining Hall. Amusements! No effort will be spared to provide innocent amusements for the enjoyment of all!” A baseball game, featuring Kittanning vs. Indiana, was planned, with footraces, bicycle races and ten pins also provided. The admission price was fifteen cents for adults, and ten cents for children over twelve. The announcement concluded, “We reserve the right to exclude all disorderly or drunken persons.”


The Indiana Democrat reported on July 5, “Firecrackers, large and small, kept booming in Indiana yesterday. John Clements, the grocer, undertook to show the juvenile celebrators who thronged his place of business how they did it when he was a boy. A small Roman candle was the instrument of both instruction and destruction. Like all fireworks, it was treacherous, and just as he turned it around to see why it didn’t fizz, it fizzed up his sleeve! It was exceedingly animated, and Mr. Clements will never get out of his coat quicker for a fight than he did for that fizz!”


Following the holiday, the Democrat reported the village of Willet held a Fourth of July celebration for the benefit of the needy of Plumville who lost their homes in a devastating fire on June 8. The affair was staged in Marlin’s Picnic Grove and attended by 4,000 persons. The preceding evening, a piece of artillery was set up at the public school at Five Points and first discharged at 6:30 a.m. by Albert Kettering, a retired artilleryman, and then at strategic moments all day long. Judge Harry White spoke at 2:00 p.m. and spectators enjoyed a parade in the afternoon. The visitors picnicked until dark, when paper balloons and fireworks lent beauty to the scene. By the end of the day, $175 (which is approximately $5,880 today) had been collected and given to the Plumville families left homeless in the blaze.


Not all Independence Days were lively in Indiana. The Democrat reported that the 1896 celebration “was a very quiet Fourth, and those who stayed home worked hard to put in the time. An occasional bursting firecracker relieved the monotony, but there were so few people on the streets that a firecracker had a lonesome time of it. Most everybody who could got away and celebrated in the nearby towns or at the many picnics throughout the countryside. The day in Indiana could hardly be called successful.”


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