A grand history of a grand day

A Fourth of July parade in North Hibbing. The exact date of this photo is unknown, but the carriages and clothing provide clues that it's in the early decades of the 20th Century. The flags and banners are flying and people seem to be enjoying themselves at the celebration of America's birthday.

In 2007, Mary Lou Namanic published a scholarly non-fiction book about Fourth of July celebrations through the years on the Iron Range. The book, “One Day for Democracy – Independence Day and the Americanization of Iron Range Immigrants,” was published by Ohio University Press. Her research studied the ways immigrants to the Iron Range honored America’s birthday, showed that they were proud to now be in America, and reflected their experiences before and after coming to America.

The following excerpts are taken from a chapter covering the years 1891-1905.

~ Mary Palcich Keyes

The Fourth of July’s role in strengthening community bonds and in affirming America’s tenets of freedom and democracy was prominent in the oral histories conducted for this book with first- and second-generation born Iron Rangers.

Mary Anderson, born in Kinney in 1915, served for many years as the mayor of the small town of 250. As the daughter of a tavern owner and then as the owner of Mary’s Bar, she typically worked on the Fourth of July and had many fond memories of early celebrations. She recalled that her parents and their immigrant neighbors looked on the Fourth of July “as a symbol of freedom and a day to do or say anything one wanted. It was a day that made you realize this is what freedom is all about. Foreigners, especially, appreciated this because they never had the freedoms as in this country.”

The late Peter Fugina, a state legislator and a first-generation American, born in 1909, agreed, stating that despite disagreements on how towns would celebrate the Fourth, the celebration was regional. “It’s a strange thing…everybody was at it. It was the only activity which involved practically everybody.” To Iron Rangers, Independence Day embodied what he described as “the spirit of the group and all the communities of the Iron Range as one.”

Traditionally, this spirit of popular radicalism has continued to be expressed through the incessant noise, tough games, and sometimes drunken revelry. Interestingly, in the era at the beginning of the 20th Century of cultural conformity, social reform efforts across the country were often devoted to suppressing these practices and socializing immigrants into moderate and deferential public behavior, particularly as urban populations rapidly expanded and urban order required public space regulations. Consequently, although reform efforts elsewhere were transforming the Fourth of July into more of a solemn, respectable commemoration of the nation’s birthday, Iron Range celebrations maintained their rowdy characteristic.

Nonetheless, the influence of the national culture can be detected in town promotions that featured celebrations in the “proper style,” reflecting order and decorum. According to the Mesaba Range newspaper, for example, in 1893 the town of Merritt and its sister town of Biwabik, one mile away, co-sponsored a program described as a celebration “in the proper style.” This solemn formal program featuring orations was planned by Biwabik town officials to balance the array of rugged sporting events and games designed to engage the diverse groups of young miners. The tug-of-war, a greased pole climbing event, a three hour show put on by Chippewa Indians, and a pow-wow were emphasized in program promotions. Although no parade was planned, a dance and fireworks were expected to cap off the evening. Unfortunately, a “cold and drizzly rain” came down all day, so the formal program of speeches and the dance were cancelled that year and it was too wet for the fireworks. Nonetheless, the weather did not deter the men from carrying on with their rough games in the rain and mud. The newspaper reported that the Cornish wrestling tournament and the horse race were held, as well as the tug-of-war between Merritt and Biwabik, which lasted “fully 40 minutes,” with the Merritt team ending up victorious.

Despite promotions describing celebrations in the “proper style,” Iron Range Independence Days were dominated by a rowdy and informal style.

One of the first accounts of Tower’s celebrations, in 1888, describes an event planned in the “proper style,” with a formal program, games, and a dance. Despite its promise of a solemn celebration, the town’s distinctly Iron Range character was apparent, reflecting the diversity of its population and the frontier state of the region. The day began with a parade led by the mayor, town dignitaries, and program officials, who represented the orderly and dignified elements in the parade. The disorderly units came at the end, as was common in the European tradition of “rough music,” characterized by parody, disorder, and humorous costuming.

Ely’s first Fourth of July was celebrated in 1891, the year of the town’s incorporation. A whopping $800 of its $1,200 budget was earmarked for fireworks. This is a significant sum when one considers that $800 is roughly equivalent to $16,500 in 2007 dollars. This celebration was promoted as far away as Duluth, and a special train ran between Duluth and Ely to bring in port city visitors.

Also, the noisy wake-up ritual, a common European festive custom, ushered in Ely’s first Fourth of July. According to the Ely Iron Home newspaper, the town’s rowdy celebration of “the greatest American holiday” began at four a.m. when the Ely Corner Band “paraded the streets, making the air ring with national music.” Adding to the band’s noise was a cannon blast at daybreak. This “belched forth in thunderous tones that another year of national independence had passed, everybody in this charming young city was prepared to celebrate the day in the most patriotic manner he or she is capable of.” Under the boldface headline “Hurrah!” the newspaper account detailed the importance of the wake-up ritual and proclaimed the significance of this celebration of democracy.

•••

Big Military Parade on the Fourth of July

The following article is from the Hibbing Daily Tribune June 26, 1919. The First World War had ended the previous November and, although the town had a fine celebration at that time, now that the soldiers and sailors were mostly home and the weather was more suitable for a big parade, Hibbing was ready to celebrate once again. The returning servicemen will be a big part of this parade. Think of the song from the American Civil War era, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” It became popular once again during World War I. Picture “The men will cheer and the boys will shout, the ladies they will all turn out when Johnny comes marching home” and then picture the crowds along the North Hibbing streets.

~ Mary Palcich Keyes

The largest soldier parade ever held on the Mesaba Range is the boast of the Victory Celebration committee in Hibbing today. It is estimated that close to 1,200 men representing every branch of the service will be in the 4th of July procession.

It was announced today at the Soldiers and Sailors Club, five additional servicemen reached home this week and will be here for the two-day fete. They are A.E. Mehtonan, of the 317th Machine Gun Battalion; A. Hansen, of the 21st Machine Gun Battalion; H.A. Goldbrand, of the 303 Motor Transport Corps; C. Nickoloff, of the 228th Military Police; Hubert Samson, of the Third Field Artillery. Robert Faucett, of the 16th Machine Gun Battalion, is also recently arrived back in the United States.

In order to give the many visitors expected here for the celebration an opportunity to see what Hibbing contributed in manpower to the Great War, every serviceman is expected to be out. The day is a holiday and the mining companies will not operate. Every soldier and sailor has signified his intentions of appearing in the line of march and if promises mean anything Hibbing will witness the greatest military display in the history of the Mesaba Range.

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