Traditionally, the Fourth of July is known for picnics, public celebrations and fireworks. It has been that way from the earliest days of our history, in fact, on July 2, 1776, after the formal document had been approved by the Continental Congress John Adams wrote the following to his wife Abigail: ““I am apt to believe it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. … 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 for ever more.” On television and in the movies we see entire communities gather together for patriotic speeches and family entertainment. Yet, such celebrations have not been as common in our area. We now have the celebration on the riverfront in Shreveport that has become so popular in the last few years, but Minden has no long-standing Fourth of July tradition other than fireworks displays.
It is easy to forget that for many years after the Civil War, the old Confederacy was in a very odd situation in terms of their relationship to the rest of the nation. People living in our part of the country had not only engaged in combat against the military forces of the United States, but the entire region had endured Reconstruction, when so many evils became part of the life of southerners of all races. Indeed, Louisiana and the former Confederate states had been treated as a conquered province, with all the accompanying resentment that entails. The disaffection to the United States government caused by those times of trial lingered for years. In fact, a major concern of the United States government upon the institution of the military draft during World War I was whether or not young men from the South, whose grandfathers had fought for the Confederacy, would accept conscription into the military. Of course, those fears proved pointless as local men did more than their part with loyal service, but, nevertheless, it was a real question to many in Washington. This month’s article will look at the rebirth of Fourth of July celebrations in our area after 1865 and the return of Louisiana to the Union.
Reading the surviving Minden newspapers from the 1870s and the 1880s, and looking for evidence of a Fourth of July celebration proved to be an interesting project. Frankly, from reading those newspapers one would not be aware that the date had any significance to the public at large. No editorial comment, advertising or news coverage indicated July 4 was a special event. The only clue came from an event caught up in the politics of the day. During those years the Greenback Labor Party emerged in Webster Parish and northwest Louisiana as what is known as a Fusion Party. This label was applied to any political group in the old Confederacy that attempted to unite disaffected rural Democrats, former slaves and Republicans who were largely shut out of the political process by the Redeemer Democrats. Few if any of these efforts were successful, although Webster Parish was an exception to that rule. In the elections of 1879, the Greenback Labor Party gained control of the parish government of Webster for a single term, under the guidance of Minden mayor P. W. Paul. In the preparation for that election, the Greenback Labor Party hosted a barbecue on July 4, 1879 for its members in Webster and Claiborne Parish. Since the party called for complete reconciliation with the north and included Republicans in its membership, it seems certain that the date of the picnic was no coincidence. However, in its news coverage of the event, the Webster Tribune, a staunchly Democratic paper, gave no clue to any meaningful relationship of the event to the date. The social events surrounding the meal were described in detail and the speakers were mentioned; however, the reason for the date chosen was never broached.
That was the only special July 4th event mentioned in the newspapers of that five year period and all local papers between 1883 and 1897 have been lost, so our next glimpse into local celebration comes in the summer of 1897. In that year, no celebration is mentioned for Minden but a social review is given for a large picnic, attended by more than 2000, held at Allentown, the now vanished lumber mill town, on the west bank of Bayou Dorcheat. As with the 1879 stories, the names of individuals involved are mentioned but no suggestion as to the date itself having any particular meaning. During 1898, the United States found itself engaged in the Spanish-American War. While not many men from the area served in that war, the region saw many troops come through on trains being ferried to and from training in Texas, perhaps sparking a new, more positive attitude toward our association with the other states.
Once again, the newspapers from 1898 are missing, but, when the papers from July 1899 are examined, a change seems apparent. The Webster Signal gives coverage to a “holiday picnic at Cotton Valley”, citing it as being done in “antebellum style.” This was the first written clue that a change in tenor of local celebration did come after the Civil War. The coverage goes on to state:
“There was a large crowd present, made up of people from all sections of the parish and from points in Bossier. Cotton Valley to day is quite a railroad center as was demonstrated by excursion trains coming in from Stamps, Allentown and Minden, bringing in a large quota of representative citizens from each place to swell the assembled crowd. The principal feature of the day’s entertainment was the splendid address delivered by Dr. W. T. Boiling of Shreveport, the dinner, consisting of barbecued meats and other tempting eatables prepared by the good ladies of the community and last but not least, the excellent music, furnished by the string band, composed of a number of young men from this place (Ed. note – Minden).
“Dr. Boiling, after being introduced by Captain Goodwill of this place (Ed. note – great-grandfather of former Louisiana Governor Mike Foster), proceeded to deliver an eloquent and patriotic address. We cannot in this brief notice to give even a synopsis of his able effort, but suffice it to say that throughout the delivery he held his hearers spelled bound and all expressed the regret that it was not longer. All present seem to have enjoyed the day to the fullest extent and the good people of Cotton Valley are to be congratulated upon the success of their celebration and the hospitable manner in which they entertained their friends and visitors.”
While Minden did not seem to have a celebration that year, another clue that attitudes were changing came in this holiday editorial in the Signal:
“Americans have every reason to celebrate the Fourth of July this year with especial fervor of patriotism and with a justified national pride in Yankee achievement for the sacred cause of liberty.
“In the war with Spain, which had its beginning and ending in 1898, some very doughty blows for freedom were struck by Yankee hands. Three peoples were released from bondage the most cruel and oppressive the world has ever known. The islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, vassal to Spain one year ago today, are free islands now, with the pledge of this government that they shall be forever free.
“Nor will Americans, who are proud of their country, its mission in the world, its faith to its traditions, its loyalty to those principles of popular liberty which gave it birth, believe that those pledges will be broken. The war with Spain was undertaken for the holy purpose of enfranchising the colonial thralls of Spain. That purpose may not be distorted or ignored. It must be accomplished to the fullest if Old Glory is to wave unstained before the world.
“Old Glory is waving mighty proud today. In every true American heart there is cherishing a firm resolution of loyalty to all it represents. Salute it and stand by the teachings which it personifies, ye seventy million Americans who are the hope and the means of salvation of the world’s other millions for whom the day of liberty has not yet dawned.”
It seems difficult to believe that any such high-minded sentiments, particularly associated with the chosen word “Yankee” would have been published just a few years earlier, based on the nearly complete avoidance of any reference to the importance of July 4 in our history.
Still, no formal town celebrations emerged in Minden over the next few years. The town did embrace a big Fourth of July baseball game, with the local town team losing a contest to Homer in 1900, but defeating Arcadia in 1901, although that contest was shortened after a fight broke out between local team boosters and supporters of the Bienville Parish team. Also in 1901, there was a large community picnic held in the Pleasant Valley community, north of Minden. The event was held at the Hortman Brothers store on the L&A Railroad. The crowed enjoyed barbecue and heard an address from a Captain Ogilvie on the topic of “Liberty.”
The baseball game continued to be the featured holiday attraction in Minden in 1902, and in 1903. The next year, 1904, was an election year and local news coverage focused on a large picnic held at Yellow Pine. The sponsorship of that event was not mentioned, but the featured speaker was Judge John T. Watkins of Minden, who was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 4th Congressional District. More than 3,000 people from all over the parish attended the event where they heard a morning speech by Watkins and enjoyed a barbecue lunch at 1 p.m.
Finally, the next summer, 1905, the town of Minden held a big holiday celebration of its own. Minden was at that time enjoying an unprecedented boom time, sparked by the arrival of the Minden Lumber Mill of the Bodcau Lumber Company. The town was enjoying increased rail traffic on the L& A Railroad, electric lights had been installed in town, courtesy of the mill’s power plant, and a brand new Webster Parish Courthouse had just been completed. It was estimated that the population of the town had nearly tripled in the last four years. With such good times, it seems fitting that our community had its first formal Fourth of July celebration in the more than 34 years since the outbreak of the Civil War. The Webster Signal of Friday, July 7, 1905, gave the following account of the day’s events:
“Mindenites have every reason to be proud of their Fourth of July celebration Tuesday. The crowd was large, orderly and all seemed to be well entertained and pleased with the hospitable welcome accorded them.
“The celebration took place under the wide-spreading oaks of the spacious High school campus, the speaking taking place in the Concert Hall. (Ed. note – This was when Minden High School was still using the building of the old Minden Female College, the first building specifically constructed for the local school would not be built on the site until four years later in 1909-1910.) The crowed in attendance was estimated at twenty-five hundred people, and this number would have been increased by several hundred had it not been for the high stage of water in Dorcheat Bayou which completely cut off the attendance from west of the stream. The musical program by the Citizens’ Concert Band was well rendered and the crowd was regaled and enthused by the patriotic strains of old familiar melodies, as well as by the classic and modern selections.
“Mayor Robert Roberts (Ed. note – grandfather of former governor Mike Foster) welcomed the visitors in a very appropriate speech and he was followed by Dr. S. J. Harrell, who made a short talk. Mr. Joseph E. Johnston, a prominent lawyer of Benton, and also superintendent of the public schools of Bossier Parish, was then introduced. Mr. Johnston is a happy speaker, and his patriotic utterances were listened to with rapt attention by the large audience. The only drawback to the speaking was that the hall was not large enough to seat more than a third of the crowd, but those who did hear Mr. Johnston, expressed themselves as being delighted with his address.
“After the speaking, the dinner was announced. A long array of tables had been erected under the oaks and on these had been piled great quantities of barbecued meats, supplemented by a tempting spread of choice eatables that had been prepared by the ladies of the town. The barbecued meats were well seasoned and done to a turn, and this feature of the spread was especially enjoyable.
“At three o’clock most of the crowd repaired to the baseball park to witness the game between the Minden and Arcadia teams. (Ed. note – Apparently the disagreement of the 1901 didn’t prevent a rematch, or perhaps Arcadia was a preferred opponent to the Homer team that had beaten the locals a few years earlier.)
“Altogether the day was very appropriately observed. This anniversary is one of the greatest days in the history of this great republic. It is therefore meet and proper that we should assemble together and, by patriotic speechmaking and other wise, teach our children to love their country, to reverence its free institutions of church and state, and to generally commemorate the Glorious Fourth as marking a great epoch in the history of the world.”
That last paragraph sums up and illustrates the subtle evolution that it took to move our local community from a total lack of notice for the fourth of July in 1878, to a well received town-wide celebration in 1905. An evolution completed thirty years after the conclusion of the Civil War. It many ways it seems that the words of the editor symbolize a true end to Reconstruction in the minds of Minden’s residents and a return to complete acceptance and participation in legacy of the anniversary of the creation of the United States.
Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.Special to the Press-Herald.