Celebrating the 4th in 19th Century Evansville
Researched and written by Ruth Ann Montgomery
Early Parade Photographs:
Photo 1: Grange Store float
Photo 2: Parade on west Main Street 1909
Evansville has been celebrating the 4th of July since at least 1844 when Byron Campbell moved to Evansville with
his family. The first 4th of July that Campbell could remember was a Sunday School picnic in a grove of trees on
South Madison Street.
At another early 4th of July celebration, Campbell and others remembered a small parade. Children from a
school in Green County and their teacher, Oliva Hume participated. In preparation for the event, the children
purchased fabric and sewed their own flag.
On the morning of the 4th, the father of one of the girls hitched a team of large oxen to a lumber wagon with a
hay rack. The wagon was decorated with green boughs.
The children and their teacher waited for the wagon at the school house. The girls wore white dresses with red
sashes and a blue bonnet. With the wagon loaded and their homemade flag flying in the breeze, the group
headed for Evansville’s parade.
It was a 4th of July the children never forgot. Byron Campbell recalled the event because he did not have
enough money to buy firecrackers. “I have not got over feeling bad about that yet,” Campbell said many years
after the event.
Holidays were also a favorite time for weddings and in 1868 two couples decided that the 4th of July was a
memorable time to get married. Rev. A. H. Hueling, the Free Will Baptist minister performed both ceremonies.
The wedding of George W. Palmer, a tailor at the general store of Winston and Bennett, and Ursula C. Newton
took place at the residence of the bride’s mother in Evansville, on the evening of July 4th. The wedding of Henry
D. Lockwood and Emma Tolles took place at the parsonage of the Evansville’s Free Will Baptist Church.
Evansville’s 4th of July celebration usually started with a gun salute at dawn. Later in the morning there was a
parade to a picnic area where a stand and seating was built for the comfort of the crowd. For many years, the
celebration was held in the grove of trees north of the home of Dr. John M. Evans, Evansville’s namesake. His
home faced West Main Street and extended to the mill pond. Today his home is the site of the Masonic
In 1870, the Review newspaper editor, Isaac Hoxie, described the location as “a most delightful spot. A stand had
been erected and seats provided, but not half sufficient for the crowd assembled. Friendly trees afforded good
leaning posts besides cooling shades to compensate for the lack of seats.”
Another popular location for the 4th of July activities was Leonard’s Grove, the land behind Levi Leonard’s house
at the northeast corner of West Main and Second Street. In the 1880s, this land was platted for Leonard &
Mygatt’s addition and the northern most portion of the land was sold to the Village of Evansville for the first park.
Evansville’s 4th of July parade began at 10 a.m. and often included a company of “ragmuffins” dressed as
animals and birds. The Evansville Cornet band, provided music. The parade also included carriages carrying
local dignitaries, parade marshals, men on foot and on horseback.
Following the parade was the reading of the Declaration of Independence, a three gun salute, a prayer, music,
patriotic resolutions and speeches by local ministers, village trustees, and professors from the Evansville
If they were available, politicians from Janesville or Madison also gave speeches. Burr Jones, an Evansville
native and popular Madison attorney, was a favorite with the 4th of July crowd.
Sometimes there were too many speakers or they were long winded and children became bored. Even the adults
sometimes found the long speeches “considerably detracted from the pleasure of the occasion.”
After the speeches, there was a picnic and each family or group provided their own food. During the noon meal
the band played and sometimes a community choir provided music. When the picnic was done, there were
games of croquet, rope swings for swinging and boat rides on the mill pond.
Tub races were a popular afternoon event. The 1870 tub races were described in the Evansville Review: “The
tub race, which was set down at two o’clock, came off in fine style, witnessed by the whole audience, who lined the
banks of the pond and crowded upon the dam to witness the sport. The race was entered by Messrs. Gray,
Hamilton and Newton, for a purse of ten dollars, and won in fine style by Mr. Gray. The performances were
exhilarating in the highest degree and carried out in fine style both by the winner and the defeated.”
When the events at the picnic site and the activities at the mill pond were completed, another parade was formed
to march the units back to the corner of Main and Madison Streets where the parade originated.
In the evening there was a public dance with dinner served at the hotel at the corner of Main and Madison,
followed by fireworks. The Review described the conclusion of the 4th of July celebration in 1876, the
Centennial of the Declaration of Independence: “Noisy boys and detonating fire crackers, loungers, and snarling
curs, with a drenching midnight rain closed up our Centennial Fourth.”
There were years that no one bothered to plan a Fourth of July celebration. This did not deter family reunions
and social gatherings of friends.
If the annual celebrations did not occur, community leaders became anxious, knowing that other communities
were attracting Evansville people to their events. Early in the spring of 1878, the Evansville Review began
calling for a planning committee for the 4th of July. “Evansville has not had a real national celebration for some
years,” the Review editor complained. “Now let this our second centennial year, 1878, be characterized with the
burning fire of patriotism that will take the wings right off the old eagle and make her scream with rapturous
The call for a 4th of July celebration in 1878 was met with a good response from the community. Several
committees were formed to find speakers, organize the parade and provide other entertainment. The Evansville
Cornet Band agreed to furnish the music.
Vendors were on the grounds with food for those who did not bring a picnic. Tub races were replaced with
baseball games and glass ball shooting. At 8 o’clock in the evening there was balloon ascension and the
Evansville Fire Department demonstrated their equipment. The owner of the Spencer House hotel held a dance
The day was declared a success. “In all, the crowd was the largest and the most orderly we have ever seen in
Evansville on an occasion of this kind,” the Review noted in reporting the event.
There was enthusiasm for continuing the annual celebrations. It was good for local businesses and was widely
supported. In 1882, the finance and soliciting committee had no trouble raising $200 to pay for the festivities.
The hardware firm of Snashall and Mygatt and another local businessman, Charles H. Hollister were in charge of
getting a cannon, powder and cartridges that could be fired during the celebration. The committee reported that
“a thing of that kind could be had in payment of cost of transportation.”
Five years later, the enthusiasm had worn down and there was no celebration in 1887, except the tolling of the
church bells at midnight, as the day began. Many sleepy townsfolk mistook the bells for fire bells, but when fully
awake realized that it was the 4th of July. With no events planned for Evansville, the local newspapers reported
that a good sized crowd, 200 people, went to Janesville to enjoy the festivities.
Evansville business and civic leaders regained their community spirit and held a celebration in 1888. Local
residents decorated their homes and yards. The residence of C. B. Morse was declared by the Evansville
Tribune, “the most beautifully ornamented for the 4th.” The Morse home was at 103 West Main Street, today’s
Allen-Meredith Funeral Home, and still one of the most beautifully decorated for Evansville’s 4th of July
However, the celebration was marred by one of the few fireworks accidents reported in the 1800s in Evansville.
A special platform had been built to shoot off the fireworks. No one noticed that Ray Clifford, the little son of Mr.
Charles Clifford, was hiding under the stand. Ray was seriously burned by the debris from the fireworks.
There were also complaints about the cannon that the 4th of July committee had rented for the celebration. The
big gun was fired from the Church Street bridge. Allen S. Baker reported to the weekly newspaper, the Tribune,
that 36 windows were broken out of the Baker Manufacturing Co’s., machine shop and foundry. There was no
report of whether the 4th of July committee paid Baker’s for the damage. However the Tribune said in the July 7,
1888 issue, “The cannon was an expensive luxury to our Fourth, without any pleasure or comfort to the day. It
seemed to detract from it.”
The following year there was no Fourth of July celebration in Evansville. The Review reporter lamented that fifty
years ago, (1839) the first settler had arrived. “Their children and grandchildren are with us today, and it would
have been a fitting tribute to their memory and patriotism could we have commemorated the event with a formal
The Review suggested an Old Folk’s Picnic, but there was no one enthusiastic enough to volunteer to organize
it. Evansville residents had to go elsewhere to find the usual activities. “Before you go, don’t forget to hang out
the bunting and to give every boy you see a nickel to buy the fire crackers and the pop guns—young America’s
emblems of patriotism,” the reporter advised.
Citizens apparently followed his advice as the next issue of the newspaper reported “Young kids kept up an
incessant fusillade of firecrackers.” In the evening some private parties set off some rockets and Roman candles
There was a small celebration in 1890. The main gathering took place in the park at the end of Second Street.
The Rev. E. L. Eaton delivered a lecture that lasted one hour and fifteen minutes. The first forty-five minutes
was devoted to the history of the United States and the remaining half-hour to an anti-liquor and anti-tobacco
speech. Women sold homemade ice cream to earn funds to cover the expenses of the day.
Celebrations in the 1890s were more elaborate with a planning committee starting early to plan for National
Independence Day. Local business and professional men established a finance committee to solicit donations
and other named other committees to plan music and set up the stage and seating at the park. According to
reports after the event, the fireworks for the 1891 “were grand. There were many new pieces never before seen
here.” The Episcopalians sold dinners and lemonade at the celebration and earned $26 to repair the bell on
their church steeple.
In June 1894, the celebration committee met at the Magee Opera House to complete arrangements. There were
plans for a street parade, floats that represented the 13 original colonies, and industrial exhibit on a float drawn
by a steam locomotive, bicycle riders, a re-creation of Coxey’s Army.
The marshals for the 1894 celebration represented not only Evansville, but many of the townships and villages in
the surrounding area. The marshals were John Winston, Evansville; Elmer Bullard, Union; C. C. Howard,
Magnolia; and Dan Finnane, West Magnolia. The representatives from other areas included W. W. Andrews,
Brooklyn; Everett Van Patten, Albany; William Tolles, Porter; O. F. Wallihan, Dayton; Will Corey, Footville; Fred
Fellows, Center, and Charles Netherwood of Oregon.
The 1898 festivities were especially patriotic as the nation was at war for the first time since the 1860s. Evansville’
s young men were being asked to serve in the United States Army for the Spanish American War.
There was a rousing send off for the young men. The event was described in the local newspaper: “When the
band gave the notice, with some of their most patriotic music, that the boys were about to start. A large crowd
gathered upon the public square to bid them God- Speed and a safe return, but it was hard for mothers, relatives
and friends to restrain their feelings and tears flowed freely, as all realized that not all of these boys would ever
see their homes and friends again.”
Sixteen young men reported for duty on the same day. Frank B. Wood, George Bidwell, Jr., George Hammon,
Frank Weaver, Frank Smith, Joseph Levzow, Harry Bagley, Robert Lang, Bert Crawford, Edwin Cole, Jr., Edwin
Setzer, Moody Smith, George Neil, R. A. Neil, better known as Dicky Neil, L. B. Lees and Perry Clark all joined the
Army and went in a group to the depot for induction.
A few weeks later, a reporter spread the news that the patriot fervor had quickly passed for some. Frank Smith,
Joseph Levzow and Edwin Cole became faint hearted and returned home. Others failed to meet the standards
set by the Army. Edwin Setzer, Moody Smith, R.A. Neil, and L. B. Lees failed to pass the physical examination.
The rest of the men who had left with patriotic zeal entered the service.
During times of peace and war, Evansville’s traditional 4th of July celebrations continue through the years.
Volunteers organize events and raise funds to cover the costs of programs and fireworks for Independence Day,
as the residents did in the 1800s.