July 4 Celebrations, Long Ago
There was a really big party in South Natick 118 years ago.
About 8,000 folks gathered for festivities in the village on July 4, 1901, to celebrate the revolutionary history of America and also to honor the 250th anniversary of the founding of Natick as the first “Praying Indian Town” in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Among the happy crowds were nearly 150 descendants of the Rev. John Eliot, who, with the Algonquian leader Waban, established Natick on a beautiful bend in the Charles River in 1651. These men and women, who hailed from two dozen states and called themselves “the Eliot family of America,” held their own party on July 3 in the Eliot Church. They also gathered under the nearby “Eliot oak,” where, according to tradition, John Eliot had preached to the original “Praying Indians.” A report of the celebration indicated there were no known descendants of Eliot living in Natick at the time.
During a full day of scheduled activities, everyone had a great time in the style to which Natick’s good folks were accustomed at the turn of the century. The program of events and the highlighted activities may not seem like rockin’ good fun to many folks today. No outdoor big screen TVs. No fighter plane flyovers. No on-stage rock bands with mountains of speakers.
There were flags and red, white, blue, and “Indian yellow” bunting all over the place, on virtually every home, shop, and building stretching for a half mile along Pleasant Street. Nearly 1,000 yards of cotton bunting was used to brighten the village. The report of the extravagant July 4 event noted: “The Eliot church (Unitarian) was also finely decorated, and its beauty was something to admire…The Bacon [Free] Library was also beautifully decorated with bunting and flags.”
There were speeches galore, good eats in the festive tents, lengthy readings of original poetry, a colorful and well-orchestrated regatta on the river, fireworks (the program listed “Rockets, Bombs and Shells”), and hearty singing of patriotic songs by the massed thousands of celebrants.
There was serious entertainment. Lt. Gov (later Gov.) John L. Bates was the kick-off speaker in the morning, and U. S. Rep. John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald followed with an address grandly titled “The Duty Massachusetts owes to the Memory of John Eliot.” Fitzgerald was expansive: “…What tender memories cluster around Eliot’s Indian Bible! What a lesson it must speak to each heart and what associations does it not present to our mind! John Eliot’s life teaches us that labor has a quasi-omnipotence, that without there is no excellence, that it is the law and condition of all progress…”
The regatta on the Charles River was the afternoon event. It offered prizes in 16 categories, including Single Paddle Canoe, Working Boats, Tub Race, Polo Horse Race, Steam Launches, Indian Canoes, Hurry-Scurry, and War Canoes. No noisy motorboats to spoil the tranquil scene. (For those not fully tuned in to regatta lingo, the “hurry-scurry” featured boats secured in the river, waiting for their owners to swim from shore, climb in, and race to the finish line).
The Celebration Committee of the Historical, Natural History and Library Society of South Natick (now the Natick Historical Society) reported that the event cost $1,623.57, including $98.27 for “erection of the Grand Stand” and $7.80 for “fitting up grounds for care of Horses, Bicycles, &c.” Apparently most of Natick’s policemen were there: the treasurer’s report listed $29.00 “paid for Police Protection of Decorations, &c., and Dinner and Supper for whole Force.” [“Dinner” was the main meal of the day, often consumed at mid-day more than 100 years ago.]
The Natick Citizen gave its account: “South Natick did herself proud last Thursday and is entitled to a great amount of credit. When a handful of people can attract eight thousand persons to their borough, with celebrations in towns bordering them, it speaks volumes for their enterprise and management…We doubt if a cleaner or more entertaining affair was ever held in the state, and it doesn’t seem possible that it could be improved on.”
There was lots of the kind of poetry that was esteemed as good entertainment at a public celebration in 1901. Mrs. Wilimena Eliot Emerson of Detroit, MI, recited her original poem of 28 stanzas commemorating the 1651 settlement of Natick, beginning with:
All hail, ye verdant hills and leafy streams!
Ye forest rocks and bays! our childhood’s dreams
Were woven in your magical embrace
Whose sweetness naught can ever quite efface.
Our fathers found thee! saw the primal plan
Of meadow, brook and glade unspoiled by man,
The sylvan solitude, th’ unsullied mountain brow—
Wearing its summer’s green, its winter’s snow.
New England beautiful! to-day we pour
Libations free and gladsome on thy shore!
After two hundred years and fifty more have sped
We greet the living and invoke the dead!
Selected sources and additional reading:
Natick Historical Society collections.
Proceedings of the Reunion of the Descendants of John Eliot “The Apostle to the Indians” at Guilford, Conn., Sept. 15th, 1875; Second Meeting at South Natick, Mass. July 3d, 1901 and the Two Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Founding of South Natick by John Eliot and His Praying Indians July 4th, 1901. Publisher unknown, no date.