Fourth of July — old style
It seems that celebrating our Independence Day lately has become in the main an excuse solely to have a good time, with little thought given to the older and deeper patriotic significance of the holiday.
July Fourth, of course, commemorates adoption of the Declaration of Independence at Philadelphia in 1776. Annual observance of the historical event began even before the American Revolution was won.
On July 4, 1831, a caravan of U.S. merchants, camped on the North Canadian River above today’s Clayton, recognized the meaningful occasion.
They discharged their rifles in the air, lacking fireworks, while a drummer and a fifer played appropriate airs, “well calculated to stir the souls of men,” as a witness remembered it.
Recall, that at this date New Mexico was still under the ownership of the Republic of Mexico. After it fell into American hands, though, July Fourth celebrations were slow in gathering steam.
Retired State Historian Robert Torrez has reported on an elaborate public observance of the Fourth at Santa Fe in 1857. It included reading the Declaration of Independence in both Spanish and English, patriotic speeches, and a parade. Such features soon became standard fare annually in programs sponsored by towns and villages across the territory.
Places in isolated rural areas tended to cater to miners or cowboys, since they were the working fellows who sustained the local economy. Businessmen, however, advertised in the newspapers their upcoming Fourth programs, hoping to attract a broader base of county residents.
That was the case in the little mining town of Hermosa, located 30 miles west of present-day T or C. Organizers inserted an ad with their Independence Day “Programme” in “The Black Range,” a widely read paper at nearby Chloride.
After a salute to the flag and music, the schedule promised an “Oration,” that is, a long and flowery lecture promoting love of country.
Competitive events followed: a baseball game pitting the hometown Hermosa Eagles against a team to-be-announced; foot races, a free for all horse race, and, of course, the popular drilling contests for miners.
Each category offered cash prizes, which seem small by current standards, but were not then, as the dollar was sound. The ad closed enticing visitors with the bogus claim that Hermosa was “The Leading Pleasure Resort of New Mexico.”
Apparently, the 1888 “Grand Celebration” of the Fourth was Hermosa’s last. Just under a year later, much of the town was swept away in a flash flood.
Silver City, to the west, soon afterward gained the honor of putting on the loudest and most enthusiastic July fetes honoring liberty and the flag.
Events seen in Hermosa were on the Silver City schedule, together with some notable additions. Examples: bicycle races (newly popular), burro races, and a children’s scramble to catch a greased pig, always to the merriment of spectators.
Older youths got a chance to climb a 16-foot greased pole, and if successful capture a bag on top with five silver dollars. On one occasion, a father held his young son back while others made the attempt and failed. At the end, he had the boy rub sand into his shirt and overalls and start the climb, now that earlier contestants had worn much of the grease off the pole. The lad scooted upward and plucked the prize.
Silver City, naturally, held a miners‘ hand drilling contest, to drill a rock fastest and deepest. And then there was the obligatory rodeo offering a $50 prize for bronc riding, something Hermosa seemed to have lacked.
In all territorial towns, the chance always existed that, on this special summer day, rowdiness in the streets and fights in the saloons might break out.
But in 1893, the “Silver City Enterprise” editorialized: “There were no disturbances during the festivities, which speaks volumes in praise of the wild and woolly West.”