Community Pride was important in this mid-western town. The Evansville, Wisconsin newspaper would publish the grand prize winner of the Tallest Corn Stalk Contest - here, an unidentified couple stands proudly with their seven-foot tall stalks.
I have not seen another account of a century's year-by-year compilation of a small mid-western American town celebrating the 4th of July in public spaces across the 1800s. This rather amazing journey was written about 1800s Evansville, Wisconsin by Ruth Ann Montgomery, Evansville, Wisconsin historian at RMontgomery@litewire.net Also see The Library at the University of Wisconsin here.
Evansville, Wisconsin. 104 West Main High Victorian Gothic The home of Dr. John M. Evans (1819-1903), the city’s first physician, first postmaster, first mayor, and namesake of Evansville
Evansville, Wisconsin, was settled in 1839, by New Englanders who were attracted to the area by its pristine wooded landscape & the placid Allen Creek.
By 1855, the city recorded its first plat and was building homes, shops, and churches. In 1863, the Chicago and North Western Railway came to Evansville, accelerating growth. At this point, Evansville's economy was based on industry and manufacturing of carriages, wagons, pumps, windmills and iron castings. The economy was also based on agriculture: dairying; farming (production of wheat and tobacco; and stock raising.)
Evansville, Wisconsin. Seminary
In 1856, the Wisconsin Methodist Episcopal Conference reported that the Evansville Seminary was one of their new interests. The report stated that by the winter of 1856, the building was partially completed.
Evansville, Wisconsin. 103 West Main – circa 1858 – Greek Revival
The Evansville Seminary, a high school & later a junior college, first operated by the Methodist Church and later by the Free Methodist Church, was a training institution for 100s of students.
Evansville, Wisconsin. Downtown
By the turn of the twentieth century Evansville had over 1900 residents.
Evansville, Wisconsin. 128 West Main – 1863 – Italianate
The town has been celebrating the 4th of July since at least 1844, when a young 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 an early 4th of July celebration, Campbell & others remembered a small parade. Children from a school in Green County & their teacher participated. In preparation for the event, the children purchased fabric & 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 & their teacher waited for the wagon at the school house. The girls wore white dresses with red sashes & a blue bonnet. With the wagon loaded & their homemade flag flying in the breeze, the group headed for Evansville’s parade.
Evansville, Wisconsin. 128 West Main – 1863 – Italianate
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 & 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 & extended to the mill pond.
Evansville, Wisconsin. 114 West Main and 120 West Main – 1893 – Picturesque
In 1870, the Evansville Review newspaper described the location as “a most delightful spot. A stand had been erected & 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 & Second Street. In the 1880s, the northern most portion of the land was sold to the Village of Evansville for the first park.
Evansville, Wisconsin. 44 West Main – 1881 – High Victorian Italianate
Evansville’s 4th of July parade began at 10 a.m. & often included a company of “ragmuffins” dressed as animals & birds. The Evansville Cornet band, provided music. The parade also included carriages carrying local dignitaries, parade marshals, men on foot & on horseback. Following the parade was the reading of the Declaration of Independence, a three gun salute, a prayer, music, patriotic resolutions & speeches by local ministers, village trustees, & professors from the Evansville Seminary. After the speeches, there was a picnic & each family or group provided their own food. During the noon meal the band played & sometimes a community choir provided music. When the picnic was done, there were games of croquet, rope swings for swinging & boat rides on the mill pond.
Evansville, Wisconsin. Downtown
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 & crowded upon the dam to witness the sport. The race was entered by Messrs. Gray, Hamilton & Newton, for a purse of ten dollars, & won in fine style by Mr. Gray. The performances were exhilarating in the highest degree & carried out in fine style both by the winner & the defeated.”
Evansville, Wisconsin. 111 West Main – American Foursquare
When the events at the picnic site & the activities at the mill pond were completed, another parade was formed to march the units back to the corner of Main & 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 & Madison, followed by fireworks. The Evansville Review described the conclusion of the 4th of July celebration in 1876, the Centennial of the Declaration of Independence: “Noisy boys & detonating fire crackers, loungers, & snarling curs, with a drenching midnight rain closed up our Centennial Fourth.”
Evansville, Wisconsin. 137 West Main – 1886 – Home built for George Pullen (1860-1938).
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 Evansville 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 & make her scream with rapturous delight.” 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 & 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 & glass ball shooting. At 8 o’clock in the evening there was balloon ascension & the Evansville Fire Department demonstrated their equipment. The owner of the Spencer House hotel held a dance & dinner. The day was declared a success. “In all, the crowd was the largest & the most orderly we have ever seen in Evansville on an occasion of this kind,” the Evansville Review noted in reporting the event.
Evansville, Wisconsin. Lenonard-Leota Park & Lake Leota
There was enthusiasm for continuing the annual celebrations. It was good for local businesses & was widely supported. In 1882, the finance & soliciting committee had no trouble raising $200 to pay for the festivities. The hardware firm of Snashall & Mygatt & another local businessman, Charles H. Hollister were in charge of getting a cannon, powder & 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 & 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, Wisconsin. 138 West Main – circa 1865 – Greek Revival This home was built by pioneer settler Levi Leonard (1815-1908) who came to “The Grove” in 1840.
Evansville business & civic leaders regained their community spirit & held a celebration in 1888. Local residents decorated their homes & yards. The residence of C. B. Morse was declared by the Evansville Tribune, “the most beautifully ornamented for the 4th.” 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 & 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.”
Evansville, Wisconsin. 1899
The following year, in 1889, there was no Fourth of July celebration in Evansville. The Evansville Review reporter lamented that fifty years ago, (1839) the first settler had arrived. “Their children & grandchildren are with us today, & it would have been a fitting tribute to their memory & patriotism could we have commemorated the event with a formal gathering.” The Evansville 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 & to give every boy you see a nickel to buy the fire crackers & 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 & Roman candles for fireworks.
Evansville, Wisconsin. Elephant crossing Main Street 1898
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 1 hour & 15 minutes. The first 45 minutes was devoted to the history of the United States & the remaining half-hour to an anti-liquor & anti-tobacco speech. Women sold homemade ice cream to earn funds to cover the expenses of the day. Celebrations during the 1890s were more elaborate with a planning committee starting early to plan for National Independence Day. Local business & professional men established a finance committee to solicit donations & other named other committees to plan music & set up the stage & 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 & lemonade at the celebration & earned $26 to repair the bell on their church steeple. In June 1894, there were plans for a street parade, floats that represented the 13 original colonies, & 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 & villages in the surrounding area.
Cooksvillestore, just outside of Evansville, established 2 years before Wisconsin became a state
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 & a safe return, but it was hard for mothers, relatives & friends to restrain their feelings & tears flowed freely, as all realized that not all of these boys would ever see their homes & friends again.” Sixteen young men reported for duty on the same day all joined the Army & went in a group to the depot for induction.