Up and down the Kennebec Valley: The story of Independence Day

by Mary Grow

Local historians make some references to Independence Day celebrations

According to Wikipedia, celebrating Independence Day on July 4 each year is most likely an error.

The writer of the on-line site’s article on this national holiday says that the Second Continental Congress, meeting in a closed session, approved Virginia representative Richard Henry Lee’s resolution declaring the United States independent of Great Britain on July 2, 1776.

Knowing the decision was coming, a five-man committee headed by Thomas Jefferson spent much of June drafting the formal declaration that would justify the dramatic action. After debating and amending the draft, Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 – having approved the act of independence two days earlier.

Wikipedia further says that although some Congressmen later said they signed the declaration on July 4, “[m]ost historians” think the signing was really not until Aug. 2, 1776.

The article includes a quotation from a July 3, 1776, letter from John Adams, of Massachusetts, to his wife, Abigail. Adams wrote that “[t]he second day of July 1776…will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”

Adams recommended the day “be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

And so it has been – two days late.

Wikipedia says July 4 celebrations began in 1777, in Philadelphia, where the observance included an “official dinner” for members of the Continental Congress, and in Bristol, Rhode Island. The Massachusetts General Court was the first state legislature to make July 4 a state holiday, in 1781, while Maine was part of Massachusetts.

Windsor historian Linwood Lowden mentioned the importance of the local Liberty Pole as part of Independence Day observances. Liberty Poles, he explained were put up after the Declaration of Independence as symbols of freedom. Many later became town flagpoles; Windsor’s, at South Windsor Corner (the current junction of routes 32 and 17), was still called a Liberty Pole in 1873.

The central Kennebec Valley towns covered in this history series have quite probably celebrated the holiday annually, or almost annually, since each was organized. As with other topics, local historians’ interest, and the amount of available information, vary from town to town.

James North’s history of Augusta is again a valuable resource. He described Independence Day celebrations repeatedly, beginning with 1804 (it was in 1797 that Augusta separated from Hallowell and, after less than four months as Harrington, became Augusta).

In 1804, North describes two celebrations, divided by politics. The Democrats, or Democratic-Republicans (the party of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others) gathered at the courthouse, where Rev. Thurston Whiting addressed them.

(Whiting is listed in on-line sources as a Congregationalist. He preached in Newcastle, Warren and before 1776 in Winthrop, where he “was invited to settle but declined,” according to a church history excerpted on line. He preached in Hallowell in 1775 [then described as “a young man”], and in 1791 is listed in Hallowell records as solemnizing the marriage of two members of prominent Augusta families, James Howard, Esquire, and Susanna Cony.)

The Federalists (the party of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and others) began celebrating at dawn with “a discharge of cannon,” North wrote. They organized a parade at the courthouse that went across the Kennebec and back to the meeting house where an aspiring young lawyer, Henry Weld Fuller, gave a speech. The day ended with a banquet at the Kennebec House (a local hotel that often hosted such events), during which participants “drank seventeen regular toasts highly seasoned with federalism.”

(Hon. Henry Weld Fuller [1784-Jan. 29, 1841], born in Connecticut, graduated from Dartmouth in 1801, studied law and came to Augusta in 1803. He married Ester or Esther Gould [1785-1866], on Dec. 21, 1805, or Jan. 7, 1806 [sources differ]. They had seven children, including Henry Weld Fuller II [1810-1889], who in turn fathered Henry Weld Fuller III [1839-1863], who died without issue. North wrote that the senior Fuller served in the Massachusetts legislature in 1812 and 1816 and in the Maine legislature in 1837. He was appointed Kennebec County attorney in 1826 and was a Judge of Probate from 1828 until he died. His grandson, Henry III’s brother Melville Weston Fuller, was Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.)

By the summer of 1807, the Democratic Republicans had elected one of their number, James Sullivan, as governor of Massachusetts, and the Maine party members “were in high spirits,” North wrote. On July 4, they heard an oration by Rev. Joshua Cushman, of Winslow, and partook of a dinner for 150 people in lavishly decorated courthouse.

Cushman’s speech was published; North wrote that “it attacked federalism with more vigor of denunciation than truthfulness or discretion.”

(Wikipedia says Rev. Joshua Cushman [April 11, 1761 – Jan. 27, 1834] was a Revolutionary War veteran who graduated from Harvard in 1787 and became a minister, serving Winslow’s Congregational Church for almost two decades. He was a member of the United States House of Representatives representing Massachusetts from 1819 to 1821, and with Maine statehood continued as a Maine member until 1825. He had just been elected to the Maine House of Representatives when he died. Wikipedia says “He was interred in a tomb on the State grounds in Augusta.”)

By July 4, 1810, the Augusta Light Infantry had been organized and paraded as part of the Federalist celebration, which North believed was held in Hallowell. He listed a parade including the Light Infantry as part of the 1810 and 1812 celebrations as well.

Because 1826 was the 50th anniversary of independence, Augusta officials organized an all-day celebration, North wrote. It began with a “discharge of cannon and ringing of bells” at dawn and continued with a parade, a ceremony, another parade, a dinner and fireworks set off on both sides of the Kennebec.

One of Augusta’s most prominent residents, Hon. Daniel Cony (Aug. 3, 1752 – Jan 21, 1842), presided at the banquet. Attendees included General John Chandler (Feb. 1, 1762 – Sept. 25, 1841), then in his second term as a United States Senator; Peleg Sprague (April 27, 1793 – Oct. 13, 1880), then a member of the United States House of Representatives and later a U.S. Senator; and “some officers of the army and navy who were engaged in the survey of the Kennebec.”

Also present, North wrote, was Hon. Nathan Weston (March 17, 1740 – Nov. 17, 1832), whom Cony introduced as the “venerable gentleman” who served in the Revolutionary army and fought at Saratoga with him. North wrote that Weston “briefly review[ed]…the events which preceded and led to the war of the revolution, noticing the severity of the struggle and the spirit which brought triumphant success, gave the following toast: ‘The spirit of ’76 ­ – alive and unspent after fifty years.'”

(North’s history includes two biographical sections on this Nathan Weston, whom he usually called Capt., and his son, also Nathan Weston, who was a judge and whom North usually called Hon. North did not write anything about Capt. Weston’s military service after the French and Indian wars. However, the younger Nathan Weston was born in 1782 and could not have fought in the Revolution.)

By July 4, 1829, Augusta had been designated Maine’s new state capital (succeeding Portland), and Independence Day was chosen as the day to lay the cornerstone of the State House, leading to “unusual ceremonies and festivity,” North wrote.

The celebration began, as usual, with bells and a 24-gun salute at dawn; continued with a parade featuring the Augusta Light Infantry, many speeches and a banquet; and was climaxed by fireworks set off on both sides of the Kennebec.

One more Independence Day celebration North thought worth describing was the 1832 observance. That year, he wrote, for the first time since 1811, the two political parties – by then the National Republicans and the Democrats – “each had separate processions, addresses and dinners.”

The Democrats got “part of” the Augusta Light Infantry and a band from Waterville for their parade and held their dinner in the State House. The Republicans’ parade incorporated “the Hallowell Artillery and Sidney Rifles, each with a band of music, and the Hallowell and Augusta band.” Their dinner was in the Augusta House.

The local Republican newspaper, identified by North as the Journal, claimed 2,000 people in the Republican parade. The Democratic Age estimated only 700 in the Democrats’ parade, but claimed 1,000 at the State House meal, versus only 400 or 500 at the Republican dinner.

North wrote that the Journal admitted the Democrats fed a larger crowd, but, North quoted, said snidely, “probably half of them dined at free cost.”

Windsor historian Lowden was another who described an occasional Fourth of July celebration, quoting from diaries kept in the 1870s and 1880s by residents Roger Reeves and Orren Choate.

In 1874, Reeves described “Bells, cannon guns, pistols, rockets, bomb shells, fire crackers” on Water Street, but “very little rum” and “no rows.” (Windsor no longer has a Water Street, and your writer failed to find an old map with street names.)

Two years later, Reeves’ family went to the Togus veterans’ home “to see the greased pig caught,” while Reeves himself intended “to celebrate in the hay field.” And in 1878 Reeves again worked all day, earning “a dollar and a pair of slippers” for whitewashing a barn. In the evening he went “up on the hill and played croquet by lamp light.”

Choate went to Weeks Mills for the 1885 Independence Day celebration (he was 17 that year, Lowden said), and wrote that it included races and a dance and he didn’t get home until midnight.

The next year, 1886, July 4 was a Sunday, so the celebration was on Monday. Choate got up at 2 a.m. to join relatives and friends for a trip to Augusta’s celebration, from which they got home at 3 the following morning. “We had a good time,” he wrote, without providing details.

Other local historians made occasional comments about Independence Day celebrations – for example, the Fairfield bicentennial history says that Fairfield’s Civil War monument was dedicated on July 4, 1868.

Your writer hopes that readers remember enjoyable, perhaps moving, ceremonies from years past and will have a safe and fun holiday this year.

Main sources

Fairfield Historical Society, Fairfield, Maine 1788-1988 (1988).
Lowden, Linwood H., good Land & fine Contrey but Poor roads a history of Windsor, Maine (1993).
North, James W., The History of Augusta (1870).

Websites, miscellaneous.


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