If you're dreading the mayhem certain to come Monday at the hands of illegal- fireworks fiends, be glad you weren't around in 1875. Blacksmith Joe E. Smith of Bakersfield had the inspired idea to celebrate the country's 99th birthday by packing black powder into a rectangular hole on an anvil, setting another anvil on top, and then lighting a fuse. “Strong men paled in the vicinity of the explosions,” the Weekly Courier reported.
Modern-day daredevils: Please don't try this at home — at least not near my home.
Since the county’s founding in 1866, local generations have found a bounty of ways to mark the Fourth of July: fireworks, both legal and illegal, parades, picnics, races, rodeos and an alarming number of public speakers.
Since The Californian itself goes all the way back to 1866 — we trace our lineage to the establishment of the Havilah Courier — we’ve chronicled it all. A tour through the decades:
The Californian interviewed some old-timers in 1926, who — like old-timers of today — swore that things were far better back in the day. E.P Davis, then a 55-year resident of Bakersfield, recalled Independence Day celebrations of 1872 and 1873: “(There) was a huge barbecue that took place in a beautiful grove of cottonwoods that joined the place on Chester Lane. Two brothers, Julius and George Chester, were in charge of this part of the program and they attended to the enormous loads of beef that were brought from ranches all about the town.
“I remember on the first celebration in ’72 that two showers came up unexpectedly and drenched the crowds but they didn’t mind. We laughed and yelled about it and had a fine time. Nothing could spoil our fun in those days.”
There’s just something about exploding anvils that gets the blood up, or at least it did in 1875. In a history piece published in The Californian in 1963, the writer cites a Weekly Courier article in his description of the immediate reaction to the anvil blast: “Sound sleepers sat bolt upright in bed as windows rattled that morning in 1875 when Joe E. Smith, Bakersfield blacksmith, touched off his first blast on the anvils to open his own private Independence Day celebration. Some swore that it came at 2 o’clock. Thus aroused, a couple of bleary eyed patriots staggered outdoors to fire shakily their six-shooters and double action pepperboxes at the stars. The occasion truly had opened with a bang.”
Elsewhere, G.B. Chester, dealer in ladies goods and men’s furnishings, added a “wide awning to his store, extending beyond the sidewalk, designed to shade horses” which hitherto were tied “in the blistering sun where they stood perhaps for hours in extreme discomfort. “And out-of-towners stepped off the steam passenger train that rolled noisily on shiny tracks laid by Central Pacific Railroad Co. during the last year. From Allen’s Camp, soon to be renamed Caliente, and from stops north of the Kern River they came in little wooden coaches with open-end platforms drawn by a snorting ‘iron horse’ with brass trimmings and clanging bell. Clouds of steam hissed from each side.”
By the turn of the last century, each celebration was described as “the best one ever,” or some slight variation. Take, for example, this bit of hype from 1907: “Bakersfield yesterday saw one of the most fitting celebrations of the Nation’s birthday ever held in the San Joaquin Valley.”
“The celebration of the nation’s birthday started early,” The Californian reported. “At midnight there was a grand discharge of bombs and crackers and all through the small hours of the morning there were intermittent reports. But by sunrise the American small boy had begun to do his best and all through the day fire crackers, large and small, barked incessantly.”
A parade started at 9 a.m., and Miss Mabel Crosland was crowned Goddess of Liberty (the pageant-like contest would continue for years). “Standing under a great white canopy, and charmingly gowned in flowing white silk, she held sway over her loyal subjects in Bakersfield. Outriders attending her were uniformed in white duck and hats, and were mounted upon grey horses. The float was drawn by four grey steeds.”
Several men who fought in the Civil War were in the procession as well.
Bakersfield wasn’t always the epicenter of patriotism in Kern. In fact, several other communities, namely Taft and Tehachapi, picked up the ball when Bakersfield failed to organize a celebration.
Having just extinguished a fire threatening the city hours before, Taft charged ahead with its celebration.
“Today’s festivities were opened by a salute of 21 guns at daybreak and all are wondering where Mayor Harry Hopkins, who was in charge, was able to find the guns, and so many men ready to fire them. “For the best decorated children’s float, the first prize of $5.00 went to Elizabeth Keene and Marie Mills. The float was a cart prettily decorated in pink drawn by the two little girls and a handsomely dressed doll driving.”
An estimated 500 Bakersfield residents made the trek, many on a special train, which left the Santa Fe depot at 9 a.m. and was due in Taft shortly before noon.
The action shifted to Tehachapi — which has hosted a grand celebration ever since. But Bakersfield’s observance was small, sweetened by a promise from Gov. Hiram Johnson to attend. The governor, however, didn’t make it, “evidently detained by a railroad wreck or something,” sniffed the paper, which called the event “a silent success” anyway.
The United States was at war in 1917, giving the parade a deeper feeling of patriotism. The Californian’s account of the Bakersfield procession: “A Troop, coming at the head of the procession, and numbering as its members the youth of Kern County who will be called presently to take up the duty of fighting for the United States on the French front, awakened the sympathy of the spectators and started the applause. The various patriotic organizations came next, including the Grand Army men and the Spanish War veterans who have taken a share in the wars of our country in the past.”
A crowd estimated at 20,000 gathered for Bakersfield’s Fourth of July parade. “One of the most striking floats in the parade was the ‘Spirit of France,’ represented by a French ‘Blue Devil’ and an American soldier standing on the float clasping hands.”
An accompanying Associated Press report noted that American soldiers and sailors were observing the Fourth of July on foreign soil or foreign waters for the first time since 1776 and that France marked the day as a national holiday.
No drinking, no fireworks: Welcome to the abstemious ’20s. Our report: “Firecracker ‘bootleggers’ were scarce here this Fourth of July, only one man, Sam Yick, called the ‘mayor of New Chinatown,’ being arrested for selling the contraband material for pyrotechnic displays. However, a man, a big boy and two small boys were apprehended for violating the fireworks ordinance by discharging the noisy ‘crackers.’
“Another way to get by the law was devised by several Chinatown merchants. Taking their entire stock of explosives, they went just outside the city on South Chester avenue and established open-air businesses. The crush of customers was terrific for a time, and great quantities of firecrackers, Roman candles, bombs, pinwheels, rockets, torpedoes, giant crackers and the various other types changed hands in a short time.”
By the 1930s, car travel had increased enough that headlines sensationalizing tragedy on local roads were commonplace over the holiday. But the other side of the transportation coin was the exodus out of sweltering Bakersfield: “Drowsing in the sun like a ghost city with only a sporadic fire-cracker to revive shades of the old days, Bakersfield has expelled its population to mountains and beaches for the Fourth of July. Every public office, bank and store is tightly sealed. Every street semi-deserted. As early as Saturday afternoon, filling station and newspaper employees were the only people in town not garbed for hiking, swimming, fishing, riding or aviation. Tomorrow they will be the only ones not garbed in sunburn or mosquito bites.”
“Twenty-five hundred sheepmen of the San Joaquin Valley gathered at El Tejon grove on the Grapevine yesterday for a big barbecue, given by the Kern County Wool Growers’ Association.” Association president Pascal Ansolabehere presided over the barbecue, and what a barbecue: 40 lambs and a steer were consumed.
At Kern County Park, “a record 15,000 persons picnicked, swam, witnessed an amateur show and rested under the shady trees. ... A new record was set in passenger travel on the midget Kern River railroad, which carried 4,012 persons on its ‘over the river, under the tunnel’ line.
“Loudspeakers were turned on by the park superintendent so the holiday crowd might hear the address of President Roosevelt. Hundreds congregated around the outdoor stage to listen to the president’s words and at the conclusion of his address remained for a spontaneous volunteer amateur show, started off by one man who ‘wanted to sing.’”
The first Independence Day of World War II found Kern County in a quiet mood. “Owning to tire shortage and other travel restrictions, thousands of Kern residents, who normally journey to mountain and coastal resorts for their celebration today remained within the county for their first wartime observance of July Fourth in 24 years.”
That evening, a baseball game between Shafter’s Minter Field and Taft’s Gardner Field was to take place at Sam Lynn.
More than 10,000 people were estimated to have converged on the town to help observe the first peacetime celebration in five years. “Thousands of Kern county residents spurred on by traditional July heat, jammed highways for an unrationed Fourth of July, but set a record for the safest, sanest observance in recent years, authorities reported.”
An Associated Press columnist — a humor columnist one hopes — shared his musings on what a citizen could no longer get away with in 1952:
You cannot smoke on a bus
Or walk on the grass
Or spit in the subway
Or take your dog for a stroll unless you are both on the same leash
You cannot cash a check at the bank
Or find a place to park your car,
Or beat your wife
Or give firecrackers to your children
Or strew orange peelings on a public bench
You cannot, in many cities, cross the street until a sign says “walk”
Or pinch a pretty girl (or can you?) [Note: the parentheses belong to the writer, not the present-day Eye Street editor, who is busy rolling her eyes]
Or bawl out a cop
Or throw empty bottles at your landlord
Or maltreat a canary
Or go swimming in your underwear
Memorial Stadium at Bakersfield College opened in 1955, and the Bakersfield Firefighters Relief Association wasted no time putting it to good use, hosting public fireworks shows there until 2009. From our report: “An aerial bomb was set off at noon today to signal tonight’s gigantic Independence Day circus and fireworks display at Memorial Stadium. A capacity crowd of 16,000 persons is expected to witness the outdoor pyrotechnics. Aerial bombs will be set off every hour on the hour until the start of the show at 8 p.m.”
“Mightiest A-Bomb Exploded”: The screaming front page headline on July 5, 1957, had to do with explosives, but not ones usually associated with Fourth of July. In an age of bomb shelters, science-fiction, and the Cold War, safe-and-sane firecrackers were upstaged by atomic bombs going off in the Nevada desert.
Speaking of headlines, a groaner from 1959 jumps out: “Road Slaughter Off to Slow Start.” You can almost sense the headline writer’s disappointment.
Kern County joined the rest of the nation in a President Kennedy-endorsed campaign to ring every available bell at the same time. In Bakersfield, the time was 11 a.m. At Roosevelt School, beginning at 10:30 a.m., the summer pupils gathered for the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of a patriotic song, the recitation of “Independence Bell, 1776” and a short talk by Postmaster John Loustalot who spoke on the Declaration of Independence and the ringing of the Liberty Bell on July 4, 1776. Charles Purcell, sixth grader, read excerpts from the Declaration of Independence.
Then the dramatic moment came for the ringing of a huge bell owned by Postmaster Loustalot who loaded it for the occasion from his collection. It originally hung in Our Lady of Guadalupe Church prior to the 1952 earthquake, but it fell and broke in the temblor. It became the property of Loustalot, who had it repaired.
A picture on the cover of The Californian’s metro section offers sobering perspective on the hazards of the Kern River. It was in 1964 that the first of several signs was erected at the mouth of the Kern River Canyon highlighting the death toll from drowning. At that time the number was four; today the toll stands at 271, and that’s just since 1968.
Congressman Bob Mathias congratulated residents of Stockdale Estates on what they billed as their first annual Fourth of July parade. Mathias presented a flag, which once flew over the Capitol in Washington.
Patriot Buck Owens put his celebrity to good use with plans for a concert to raise money for Bakersfield’s effort to buy a replica of the Liberty Bell.
“For $1 a person, you can listen to Owens and his television show troupe perform and buy a piece of Kern County’s replica of the Liberty Bell. About $30,000 is needed to purchase the bell, pay for its shipment from London, England, and construct a display area for it in front of the Kern County Courthouse.
“Get a piece of the bell.”
Nobody who’s old enough will ever forget the excitement and hoopla surrounding the bicentennial celebration in 1976. The Californian went all out, offering page after page of material — columns, news stories, photos, history pieces.
“Break out the flags, strike up the band, light up the sky,” said President Ford, and Americans were quick to accept the invitation, reported the Associated Press. The United States is observing, he said “THE greatest Fourth of July any us will ever see.”
In Bakersfield, there was a dramatic re-enactment of the signing of the Declaration of Independence at Pioneer Village, and the county was expected to join a simultaneous ringing of bells throughout the country at an appointed hour.
Speaking of bells, Kern County was set to unveil — and ring — its replica of the Liberty Bell, which still sits in front of the courthouse on Truxtun Avenue (that Buck Owens concert apparently delivered). The Californian reported that the bell weighs 2,080 pounds and can be heard for 10 miles.