MEDFORD, Ore. — The parades are over and crowds are gathering for fireworks shows all over our region as Southern Oregon residents celebrate the nations 238th birthday. It’s just some of the traditional ways Americans celebrate Independence Day, but it hasn’t always been that way. For most of us, fireworks and parades, coupled with a barbecue and maybe a day at the lake, coast or river is the highlight of our Independence Day celebration.
The first photo record of an organized celebration in our area is two photographs taken in Medford in 1884, when the town was barely organized. Those pictures were taken about where the parking lot at 8th and Central is now located.
Undoubtedly, mining camps in early days also saw some sort of celebration. A diary discovered in grants pass several years ago chronicles the July 1885 observance by Charles Anderson of Foots Creek. Anderson testimony reads: “Friday, July third: I worked forenoon hoeing corn. In the afternoon Alice, Grant and I went down to Rock Point. Grant and I got on the train at Gold Hill and went to Grants Pass and then came back to Woodville. Put in the rest of the night in a hay mow.” That’s a loft in a barn where hay is stored.
“Saturday the fourth: Grant, Alice and I were at the celebration all day at Woodville. danced until 12 o’clock at night. Grant and I come up on the train to Rock Point. We had a way up time!” By the late 1800’s grants pass was holding parades and other events, as was Linkville… now Klamath Falls… and Ashland.
Parades are not the only events that brought together Southern Oregon resident to celebrate Independence Day in the last 150 years. We look back and we see, not only horse races, but car races and balloon events.
A Medford mail newspaper account for the 1900 Medford event said: “That Medford’s fourth of July celebration was a success so far as crowd was concerned no person will gainsay. Conservative estimate place the number at from 6,000 to 8,000 people.” The sheriff thought it the largest in the county in three decades. There were baseball games and a parade. but the highlight might have been the balloon ascension by “Professor Chris Nelson” said by the local news to be “The prettiest and most successful ascent the writer has ever witnessed… and he has seen several.”
A similar event later in Klamath Falls also drew big crowds as a big wood fire at Main and Third was used to heat up the air in the balloon. A “Professor Godfrey” was seated in a basket slung below the balloon and is shown flying over Klamath Falls. Aeronauts continued to wow the crowds when in 1911 one of the first airplane flights in the Basin as part of the fourth of July celebrations.
In Grants Pass, parades were apparently a regular part of the holiday festivities. but about 1910, when Sixth Street was still unpaved, the new-fangled automobile attracted crowds for an obstacle course race.
In 1916, Ashland residents rejoiced when the newly developed Lithia Park was dedicated. An estimated 50,000 people turned out for those festivities over three days. Today, Ashland’s parade remains the largest fourth of July parade in the area, but in the early 20’s, appearances by the Ku Klux Klan seem out of place for a community that today prides itself on it’s openness.
It was in 1915 that Southern Oregon became part of a national story when the Liberty Bell made a tour through the area on it’s way to San Francisco. During the night it passed through Gold Hill, Medford and Ashland.
The Gold Hill news reported that: “600 patriots rose up on their toes and cheered and cheered a gain, and still again, when the Liberty Bell special blazed past the Gold Hill depot and the car, with its fateful and precious freight came to a full stop. At it’s approach a salute of 21 dynamite charges had crashed and flooded back in waves of echo… many score attended from Sams Valley, and Galls, Kanes, Sardine and Foots Creeks. The tracks were thickly lined with tethered teams.”
In Medford, some 5,000 stayed up all night for the early morning arrival; an estimated 500 cars lined the tracks. In Ashland, the ban on fireworks was lifted and fire horns blew to welcome the train. After a brief stop, a moment in history was on it’s way south. A reporter said: “How lucky we have been to see it come and go.”