As Independence Day approaches, you will hear talk and read about something called “a good, old-fashioned 4th of July.” But just what was a real, old-fashioned Fourth like? You’ll be surprised to learn that the concept of an “old-fashioned Fourth” is not a modern one.
On May 28, 1936, the Suburban Magnet newspaper featured a front page article, beginning with the words, “An old-fashioned July 4th celebration, with parades, band concerts, races, picnic dinners and a fireworks display in the evening is planned for Independence day in Brookfield this year.”
Think of it. Brookfield was, even then, looking to recreate elements of its old-fashioned past. But what did residents of the year 1936 consider to be an old-fashioned Fourth? What was a July 4 like around here, 100 or even only 70 years ago?
Brookfield has had Independence Day celebrations, probably since its founding year, 1889, when it was named Grossdale. This subdivision was opened for sale on June 15, 1889, and 19 days later was its first, glorious Fourth.
The problem was, even though the first five model homes were already built here, probably no one was living in them yet. The only local celebrants might have been living on the farms around Grossdale. And also the train station agent and his family, living in the Grossdale Station.
Observance of the national holiday was extremely limited; something on the order of sparklers and firecrackers, maybe not even a Roman candle. Certainly there were no parades, because there was almost nobody available to be in them, or even to sit at the side of the dirt or gravel streets to watch them pass by.
As Grossdale’s population expanded, its celebrations also grew, in scope and intensity. Flags, always a sure sign of patriotism, were hung on porches or in windows, But planned parades weren’t set up until the late 1890s, when the number of citizens approached the 1,000 mark. Prior to this, if there was any outward decoration alluding to the holiday, it was by the way of fancy red, white and blue bunting attached to wagons and carriages going to commonly established picnic areas.
At these spots, organizations gathered to hold private Fourth of July parties. In the 1890s, these sites were the Sylvan Grove (Kiwanis Park); Bergman’s Grove (north of 31st Street, and west of the Salt Creek, on Henry Bergman’s farm); and at the land south of the S.E. Gross School, built from 1894-95.
Celebrating here were church members, and private clubs, such as the International Order of Odd Fellows, or the Modern Woodmen of America. When the earliest community parades began to evolve, they were of a very small size.
These parades would look very unusual to the people of 21st-century Brookfield. There were some decorated, horse-drawn wagons and riding carriages. Bicycles were enormously popular, and sometimes a whole slew of them, decorated, were ridden by their proud owners down the parade route. Boys pulled their small flag-bedecked wagons, and girls pushed their red, white and blue crepe-papered doll buggies.
Either there were no automobiles at all or, at best, one or two of the very earliest vintage. According to the Grossdale Vigilant newspaper from March 3, 1900, Grossdale’s second village president, Henry Cranwell, owned a motorcar. He lived at 3626 Grand Blvd. It is not too far-fetched to believe that he might’ve stuffed himself, his wife, Minna, and his two sons, Roland and Bronson, into his vehicle and had everybody waving flags from it during a parade.
However, Cranwell’s auto would’ve been either at the head of the parade, or near it. Horses were so skittish around cars that seemingly moved all by themselves. And the whole parade might not last any longer than 10 minutes, at most.
When Brookfield celebrates the Fourth in 2006, it celebrates it with one parade, and at one site”Kiwanis Park, the Sylvan Grove of old. But it didn’t used to be that way. Central Brookfield had one parade and festivities, while Congress Park and Hollywood each had theirs, also. This situation persisted up to about World War II. So, each Fourth of July, it was possible to see some of three different parades and attend three different celebrations at three different parts of the village.
Beginning at the crack of dawn, the sounds of nature were replaced by the sounds of battle, as impatient children, boys mostly, arose early to set off 3-inch and 4-inch-long firecrackers. Nobody got much sleep once the sun was up, thanks to local grocery stores, such as Grentzner’s and Puscheck’s, who, together with Kline’s and Pick’s drugstores, sold all types of fireworks.
Brookfield and, indeed, the villages around it, sounded like a war zone all day long. Skittish cats hid out the entire day, and dogs barked themselves hoarse. Chickens refused to lay and cows wouldn’t give up their milk. Horses reared up, not being particularly fond of firecrackers blasting around their hooves.
At private homes, vacant lots and from within the groves of trees around Brookfield, came explosions not only capable of making people deaf, but also able to blow off fingers and toes, and blind people’s eyes. This was no day off for the local physicians, S.W. Burson and Sarah Brown, the first female doctor in the village.
All day long, Brookfield smelled of gunpowder. After darkness fell, the three sections of the village each put on their own special public displays of fireworks, paid for by public or business donations. Besides skyrockets that shrieked into the sky, large set pieces and devices were enormously popular. Many were of the pinwheel variety, with names like “Eclipse of the Sun;” “Aurora Borealis in Rotation;” “Merry-Go ‘Round;” and “Whirling Wonders.”
However, the real stars of any public show were pieces like “Niagara Falls, the Seventh Wonder of the World,” which featured a long string of upside-down cylinders that showered a thick, shining stream of white sparks onto the ground. It must’ve been something to see. The conclusion of the show was usually signified by the lighting of the glowing American flag piece, the “Old Glory,” of glittering red, white, and blue.
According to the Suburban Magnet newspaper for July 5, 1913 (printed and distributed early,) Brookfield had its first “Big Automobile Parade” in which all the cars in the village took part. Led by a military band, they “paraded over all sections of the village.” Also featured were “Races for Young and Old,” with “prizes awarded in all events,” followed by the “Great Marathon Race.”
If, on July 4, 1913, people had a hankering for ice cream, they could drop into the Brookfield Pharmacy, run by Emil E. Pick, and order an “Oucher” Sundae. I understand it was called this, because it was supposed to be so cold, that the eater would shout “Ouch!”But then the evening’s special fireworks displays would probably heat the eater up again.
By the way, if you think all those dandy events were held at Kiwanis Park, think again. They were “held on (the) Public School grounds,” which means the vacant property south of the S.E. Gross School.
The Independence Day schedule for July 4, 1922, at Congress Park gives a hint of what those 1913 races might have been like.
There was the Boys’ Race, for those under 7 years old; Girls’ Race for under 7 years; Boys’ Race, for 7-10 years old; Girls’ Race for 7-10; Boys’ Race for 11-13; Girls’ Race for 11-13; Boys’ Race for 16 or under; and a Girls’ Race for 16 or under. Then there was still the Married Men’s Race; the Married Women’s Race; the Married Men’s Three-Legged Race; and the Married Ladies’ Spoon and Potato Race. Not to mention the Sack Race, open to married and single men.
Seventy years ago, remember, July 4, 1936 had been billed as being old-fashioned in character. Though the Depression reduced the number of firecrackers being shot off, anyone still asleep at 9 a.m. was awakened by aerial bombs shot off by the village, to signify that the day’s events had officially begun. While the parade moved down Grand Boulevard, as it does today, it began at Grand Boulevard and Maple Avenue.
Definitely not old-fashioned was the formal dedication of Kiwanis Park, at 11 a.m. But the usual ball games were in evidence, later, along with races at the park. After that time, Kiwanis Park became the more-or-less officially adopted Fourth of July celebration site.
Along with running races were novelties such as the balloon race, skipping race, shoe race, crab race and the thread-the-needle-race. Finishing up the day was a “gigantic fireworks display,” according to the July 9, 1936 Suburban Magnet. It consisted of 125 skyrockets and over 20 “set pieces.”
Over the years since Brookfield began, the presence of privately ignited fireworks has been greatly reduced. Come the July 4, 2006, with the area around us once again besieged by a never-ending chaos of crackles, whistles and explosions, one may wonder if this is true. It is. Long gone are the days when blowing up tin cans, barrels and flower pots was accepted as annoying, but normal.
Parade floats are no longer pulled by horses (in most cases) but by autos and trucks. And parades are certainly longer in length than those of old-fashioned times. But remaining unchanged is the spirit of patriotism, and the celebration of the fact that these United States are still with us, 230 years since our first document of freedom was signed”our own Declaration of Independence. And freedom is never old-fashioned.