July 4th: Celebrations of the Past

A horse-drawn parade marches down First Street in Benicia in the 19th Century

On July 2nd, 1776, the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence. Two days later delegates from the 13 colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence, a historic document drafted by Thomas Jefferson. From 1776 to the present day, July 4th has been celebrated as the birth of American independence, with festivities ranging from fireworks, parades and concerts, to more casual family gatherings and barbecues.

 

Benicia has celebrated Independence Day from the beginning. The Benicia Historical Museum is home to many photographs, articles and artifacts from Benicia’s past celebrations. For example, did you know that Benicia’s Torchlight Parade dates back to the late 1800s to early 1900s? At that time the town’s volunteer fire department was in charge of the event. In that era, the parade began after sunset and torches were used to provide illumination, because it predated the city’s streetlights. The torches gave the parade a name that has remained even in modern times. The torches were most likely a fire hazard, but people felt safe due to the planning and presence of the volunteer fire department. The Benicia Volunteer Firemen, Inc. was founded in 1847 and is the oldest continuous volunteer fire service in California.

 

Parade goers in the early 1900s celebrated much the same as we do today, with one exception; they wore a lot more clothes. Ladies would be decked out in large hats with wide, face-shadowing brims. Dresses were slightly above the ankle and included several under and outer layers. Men wore suits with vests, high collars and hats. Picnics were also a bit more elaborate but contained many items that are still popular today. Cold chicken, potato salad, sandwiches and pies.  

 

2020’s Independence Day celebrations will be a little different than what we’ve become accustomed to. Due to concerns and restrictions surrounding COVID-19, there will be no Torchlight parade this year, nor organized gatherings in the park. But in 2021, Benicians will once again stake out their places on the parade route, two days before the event. The street will be lined with people out to enjoy a small town, traditional parade. The high school, middle school and fire department will all be there. On the 4th, Benicia’s City Park will be filled with arts and crafts, delicious hot food, live entertainment and children’s activities. When the sun sets, fireworks will once again light up the sky. 

 

For now, though, we will have to celebrate safely – at home with our families, or otherwise socially distant – but with no less spirit, pride, or merriment. Happy 4th!

 

Categories: Community, Feature, History, The Latest
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