Cumberland Times-News

July 3, 2008

July 4th: Finding our beliefs

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

Independence Day, like Christmas, is one of the few national holidays that has not been moved to Monday, to provide a four-day break for working people. It holds its own as the Fourth of July.

Local observance varies somewhat, but in American minds the day is associated with hot-dogs and hamburgers cooked over a grill, lemonade and ice cream, baseball and other games in the afternoon, and fireworks in the evening after the sun has gone down.

The most traditional observances of July Fourth, in my experience, were in Germany, when we visited our son at the Army base where he was posted. It happened twice, at different bases, but the elements were the same: Red, white and blue everywhere, familiar food, and soldiers, with their friends and families, mingling without regard to rank.

There was an egg-throwing contest, two people tossing an egg (not hard-boiled!) back and forth over increasing distances until it finally broke in a mess. And then the men teamed up to form a pyramid to reach the $50 bill at the top of a greased pole. It was fun; it was egalitarian; and we came away proud of being American.

A few years later we happened to be visiting in the D.C. area over the Fourth, when a huge display of fireworks was scheduled for the mall. We sat on the grass in front of an apartment building in Rosyln, enjoying the music that was broadcast all over the area, and seeing the pride, the diversity, and the unity of our country all reflected in the display.

The Fourth of July is a meaningful date, and one easily remembered, so it has been chosen for a number of significant events. Ground-breaking for both the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the C and O Canal occurred on July 4, 1828. Half a century later, on July 4, 1884, the people of France made formal presentation of the Statue of Liberty to the American ambassador.

The lady's torch had already been exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, but the rest of the huge statue, cut into pieces, crated, and shipped across the Atlantic, was not reassembled until late in 1885.

Here in Frostburg it became traditional to have Sunday school picnics on the Fourth of July, but in 1876 the townspeople got together to plan a day-long celebration for the whole community.

It began at five minutes before six in the morning, when all the church bells rang. A few minutes later came a volley of 13 rounds from a cannon borrowed (from whom?) for the occasion.

By 9 o'clock the parade was assembled on West Main Street, with a hundred men in Continental uniforms, all the cornet bands of the area, and a variety of wagons serving as floats. On one there were 13 old men, representing the original colonies. That was followed by other wagons with 38 young girls, standing in for the 38 existing states. On another cart someone rode in state, identified as the Goddess of Liberty. All of the Sunday school groups fell in line, augmented by St. Michael's congregation, and a group of clowns brought up the rear.

The line of march took them all the way down Main Street, where flags and bunting were everywhere. The opera House, Centennial Hall, boasted 100 flags itself, and Paul's Hall and the Catholic rectory were not far behind. And this was all supposed to be prelude for the main event!

Outside the town limits, the Sunday school groups dispersed to their separate venues, where picnic baskets awaited. But at each one of them the crowd was reminded of the joyous solemnity of the occasion as a speaker took the place of honor and began to read, "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary......"

In some ways, our July 4th celebrations are an odd mixture. Department stores and used-car lots advertise special sales. We eat hamburgers and hot-dogs. We hold Soap Box derbies and turn the TV to tennis at Wimbledon.

But at the base of it all there is the firm American belief that we are created equal, that there is strength in our diversity and true happiness to be found in the activities we share.

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.