Historic July 4th

Historic July 4th
Time stands still with this look back
photos courtesy of nc July 4th festival archives
May the tree of liberty take root in the center of the earth, and its branches spread from pole to pole.” It was one of many patriotic toasts that day, at our first recorded Fourth of July celebration in 1795. Smithville residents and captains of the vessels in the harbor enjoyed a “plentiful” dinner under a large awning on the Fort Johnston grounds.

They gave speeches and toasted the anniversary of their independence. One observer noted that the toast ”the sovereignty of the United States, and the day that gave it birth” received three cheers, three volleys from the troops and three gun fires.
The toasts may be a thing of the past, but the celebration continues. Probably the largest Fourth of July celebration in the state, our festival has evolved over 200 years from a one-day event of speeches, toasts and gun salutes to the present multi-day festival bringing thousands to our town.
Independence Day celebrations of the early years are recorded fairly consistently up until the Civil War. At that time, records are missing, but we know that from 1862 to 1865 the Fort Fisher Confederate Commander, Col. William Lamb, fired the traditional 13-gun salute marking the day, most likely in the direction of the Union blockade.
Over the years, the festival has featured a variety of activities, some of which have been abandoned and some still in place. They had common goals, however, aimed at community involvement, recreational fun and patriotic celebration – all still important today.
In 1890, a newspaper account related that people came by steamer from Wilmington to enjoy the festivities. There were orations and singing by 42 young women representing the different states of the union at that time. Rowing and sailing races took place, capped off with fireworks off Battery Island.
The 1925 celebration included a greased pole with a purse on top, baseball game, swimming contests, ferris wheel,merry-go-round, and a greased pig run. Perhaps the pigs might be an exciting addition to our festival today.
By the 1950’s, the celebration had been named the Live Oak Festival and featured parades and pageants for beauty queens. The 1960’s brought more local organizations into the mix, changing the festival events to reflect a wider array of activities.
The Southport Jaycees held a boat raffle in 1962, the winner being announced at the Whittler’s Bench on the riverfront. The following year, the Southport Junior Woman’s Club started an arts festival and the Associated Artists of Southport sponsored a crafts fair.
Because these new events were very popular, Southport city officials recognized the growing value of the festival to our community. They appointed one of their aldermen to head up the festival committee and help coordinate the various activities and community groups involved.
Wayne Berry, festival committee historian, related how important the community groups were in raising money for festival expenses. “So many people were involved. They held bake sales, barbecues, all kinds of things. It was a lot of labor and time. But it also made the event more inclusive because so many people were supporting it.”
In 1972, the festival was incorporated as the North Carolina Fourth of July Festival, Inc. as a non-profit organization. As the attractions grew and funding needs rose, the festival moved from relying on community fund-raising activities to a model of sponsorships.
But not all the activities were keepers. In the 1970’s the festival had shrimp boat races. As anyone who has witnessed shrimpers on the river, they don’t move fast. As Wayne Berry related, “Shrimp boats aren’t really built for racing. Also they are their owners’ livelihoods, and if they blew an engine in a race that might kill their whole season.” The races were abandoned after three years.
There were other activities like horse shows and motorcross races that didn’t continue. And the festival’s own beauty pageant was discontinued due to cost reasons.
Other attractions remain popular to this day. The parade is the signature event, with the popular Sudan clowns and the Shriners just two of the participants delighting adults and children alike. The arts and crafts fairs, food vendors and music concerts are staples that bring people back every year.
Patriotic events like the veterans’ recognition and flag retirement program keep the emphasis on the meaning of the day. The naturalization ceremony is a relatively new event, added in 1996. The people participating in the ceremony take the Oath of Allegiance as the final step in their quest for citizenship.
Wayne Berry described that first ceremony. “I’m not sure that many have ever witnessed this, but it was moving. Not only were the participants overjoyed to the point of tears, the spectators were too. It was quite impressive.”
And of course the fireworks display is the traditional highly-anticipated Fourth of July event. Ours has always been popular, but one time it didn’t go well. Before firework displays were regulated, our event was managed by volunteers. On the fourth of July in 1973, on a barge in the river, the volunteers prepared for their big display. It went badly.
“All the fireworks blew up at one time,” said Wayne Berry. “For several minutes, you could hear a pin drop because we didn’t know if the people were okay. Some jumped overboard, not even knowing how to swim. But it turned out everyone was safe.”
Thankfully, today we rely on professional contractors to produce the fireworks event, which has since gone off with a bang, safely.
Most recently, in 2013, we had the distinction of having two parades. Again, Wayne Berry remembers that event. “When the movie Safe Haven was here, they first thought about using the actual parade. Then they realized they couldn’t stop the parade and refilm. So they put on another parade for the film, including local floats and community residents. They kept having to go around and around, reshooting several times before getting the right footage.”
It was just another event in the colorful life of the NC Fourth of July Festival, centuries old but always new.


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