Celebrating the Fourth in Small Town America

Band-Elmwood Band  E. Main St. on Rose St. Central Park in background with bandstand. There is windmill located current location Veteran's Memorial.

The American Band playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” in Central Park. Firecrackers exploding, first here, then there — all day long.

Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and four choices of homemade pie served by the ladies of the Congregational Church on red checkered tablecloths – all for a quarter

A young boy in knickers shouting, “Peanuts and popcorn; peanuts and popcorn” – all for a nickel.

A state legislator, the Honorable B.M. Chipperfield, dressed in a dark sport coat, white pants and straw hat, standing on a platform, explaining the values of the gold standard, “With gold we can be sure…”

A passenger train arriving from Peoria, the whistle announcing the noon arrival of the latest C.B. & Q. steam locomotive on its way to Galesburg and points further west.


At the turn of the 20th century, Americans took our country’s birthday a great deal more seriously than they do today, particularly in small towns in the Middle West. Take Elmwood, Illinois, for example, a small country town of 2,000 people, located near the middle of the state, roughly twenty miles down dirt roads to the nearest town of any size. Festivities on the 4th began early in the morning, when the sun was just coming up, and lasted until dark when the space above the horizon was brightened by sky rockets just above the tree line.

Activities for the day began in Central Park, a location laid out by the founder of the town, William Phelps, who wanted his business establishments circling an area where the members of the community could congregate for concerts and other social events as they had in his hometown in New England. Today, on July 4, 1900, the park was filled with hundreds of citizens who came at 5 am for a ceremony where Civil War and Spanish-American War veterans raised the colors. At 8:15, the crowd wandered two blocks south to the C.B. & Q. Depot to “meet the trains.” How exciting it was watching steam locomotives arriving and then departing shortly thereafter to points west like Galesburg, Illinois; Keokuk, Iowa; Denver, Colorado; and even places like Salt Lake City and San Francisco. How exciting it would be to travel to such mysterious places. The engineer would take his cap off and gesture to the crowd who would wave small American flags in the breeze.

By 9 am the crowd moved back again to Central Park, joined by even more who came to watch a 20-minute “parade of nations” which was made up of hometown folks dressed in festive costumes. What were particularly noticeable were horses and buggies bringing farm folks to town and conspicuously absent were automobiles. According to the Elmwood Gazette, the local paper, only one car had been seen in town that year. As the colorful parade headed west toward Yates City the Neptune Fire Department, sporting a horse-drawn fire truck, “made a run, coupled and extinguished a genuine fire.” Apparently that was exciting entertainment for July 1900.

The parade and fire department demonstration were followed by Miss Garilla Cooper who, according to the Gazette, recited the Declaration of Independence “in a pleasing manner.” B.M. Chipperfield’s speech on the gold standard followed and was described by the newspaper “as practical and up-to-date and deserves more extended notice, but want of space will not permit.”

After lunch, the crowds took their seats on green park benches surrounding the bandstand to hear the American Band, a popular group of local musicians, consisting of high school students and senior citizens, all dressed in black wool uniforms and hats. Later to keep the young folks involved and their elders amused, the sponsors offered twelve different races. After the crowd rooted competitors in a three-legged potato sack race, farm boys tried catching a greased pig, a greased goose on horse, while others participated in a bicycle race, 100 yard foot race and the fat man’s race. The winners received a $1.50 hat, a $2 shirt or $2 worth of goods from any store in town.

At dark, the crowd gathered before a canvas for a silent newsreel, featuring “Admiral Dewey’s Grand Reception in New York and Teddy Roosevelt’s Charge of San Juan Hill.” The finale featured the longest official fist fight in the history of the sport, lasting 15 rounds.

According to the Gazette, “The celebration of 1900 will go down in history as a complete success, the crowd large and the weather perfect although too hot for comfort.” Will the same be said of the 2015 holiday celebration?”

Karl K. Taylor

June 23, 2015

2 thoughts on “Celebrating the Fourth in Small Town America

  1. Still my favorite holiday of the year. This is a delight to read Karl. Your words make it quite easy to visualize what the 4th of July looked like uptown a hundred fifteen years ago.


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