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Northville's July 4th Celebration is an Enduring Tradition

1876 Centennial commemoration was among community's most notable.

There is no place I would rather be on the Fourth of July than my hometown. That surge of patriotic fervor hits the moment the flags are placed on the downtown lampposts.

For as long as we have lived in Northville, the Fourth of July celebration has defined the history and tradition of our close-knit community. It is Northville at its best.

Our Fourth of July Parade is among the most spirited anywhere. It is no wonder that parade watchers put out their chairs and blankets along Main Street to reserve spots the day before the parade. Good viewing downtown is hard to come by.

Once the parade is over, activities at historic Mill Race Village kick into high gear. It is the perfect setting for paying homage to our nation’s history as well as our own.

The 2011 Fourth of July celebration commemorates the 235th anniversary of our nation’s birth. While the first settlers would not arrive in Northville until the late 1820s, it is likely that those early pioneers marked America’s founding in some small way. 

So how did Northville celebrate the Fourth? An Independence Day that was particularly noteworthy was the 1876 Centennial celebration.

It is interesting to look at our nation at that time. The great Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant was completing his (not so great) second term as President of the United States, the Transcontinental Railroad was finished (1869), Alexander Graham Bell received his first patent for the telephone and made that first historic call, and only a few weeks before the July 4th Centennial celebration Lt. Colonel George Custer was killed and his 7th Cavalry defeated by the Sioux and Cheyenne in the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Northville at the time of America’s Centennial was a burgeoning village with a thriving downtown. It incorporated as a village in 1867, and the next decade would produce a surge in manufacturing and industry. Lumber was a booming enterprise with J.A. Dubuar’s sawmill supplying wood for a thriving downtown now occupied by general stores, mills, taverns, cobbler shops, millineries, carriage manufacturers and professional offices.

The nation was slightly more than a decade removed from the Civil War, and more than a third of the 150 Northville men who served in that conflict did not return home. Many of those who did would become village and industry leaders. Among those was Benijah Parmenter, who used his military pension in 1873 to establish a mill for making cider, apple butter and vinegar.

By 1876, Northville had built its first high school, Northville Union School, and had a its own newspaper. First published in 1869 as the Wayne County Record, it would become The Northville Record when its publisher Samuel H. Little changed its name on December 24, 1870.

It is from the front-page account in The Northville Record that we know how the Village of Northville celebrated Independence Day on July 4, 1876. 

To begin with, the weather did not cooperate. “The Centennial 4th of July was observed in our village in a very satisfactory manner, although the programme which had been advertised could not be carried out by reason of a severe storm, which continued until afternoon. As soon as the storm abated, the people began to come into town, so that by two o’clock several hundred had collected,” the article notes.

It further states, “The grove was too wet,” so a platform was “hastily constructed against the school building.” This indicates that the ceremony most likely took place at the Northville Union School, which was located on Main Street.

“A salute of 18 guns were fired at midnight ushering in the 100th anniversary of our nation’s birth, and a general din of lesser noise was kept up through the day . . .”

July 4th “exercises” in 1876 were far more oration than entertainment. The article notes, “A large number stood for two hours during the exercises.”

Among the speakers were many of Northville’s most prominent citizens. J.M. Swift, a physician and surgeon who had an office in his residence on West Main Street, gave a reading of the Declaration of Independence. The Record states the reading “was well worth listing to, being read in a tone of voice distinct, and understandingly.”

Orator of the day was Northville pioneer William P. Yerkes, whose address included recollections of the early years of the community’s settlement. “The recital of the immigration and struggles of the pioneers, together with an outline of the progressive steps by which we have become the peer of any township in Michigan, in material, moral and intellectual attainments was thrilling, and held the audience spell-bound even in their uncomfortable condition. We trust the address may be published as a valuable history to which hundreds will look with pride. The oration was followed by toasts, and responses to the same from a number of gentlemen present.”

The Record also notes, “a very large number of pioneers were present and each contributed to the good cheer of the occasion.” Among those participating in the exercises was Robert McFarland, who was “believed to be the oldest first settler now living.”

While oration was the order of the day, there were some similarities between the Centennial celebration and today’s festivities. The Record article notes, “the exercises were enlivened by the Northville Cornet Band” and “a fine display of fireworks in the evening closed the celebration of the day.”

It has been 135 years since Northville celebrated its Centennial Independence Day and more than 180 years since its first settlers cleared the land to create the community we know today.

I think the early pioneers would be proud to see that the spirit of our community is as strong as ever.  

Happy Fourth of July, Northville!

Bill P July 06, 2011 at 04:06 AM
Here's a small problem about ready to be addressed. A full two days before the 4th parade virtually each available curbside viewing spot (at least on the East Main Street portion of the parade route) was 'reserved' with chairs, blankets and yellow tape. Not the end of the world, perhaps, but certainly a 'getting a bit out of hand' and growing trend. At 8:30 on the morning of the 4th while setting out chairs for my own guests on my lawn I spotted a young father with his small son walking up and down the street looking for a spot to set their two chairs. No one else was yet in any of those pre-set chairs but still there were no remaining spots available so I invited him and his son to join us on my lawn. An equitable solution might be for City Council to establish a time - say no more than two or three hours before the parade start time - when chairs, blankets and such can be placed to 'reserve' viewing spots. The essential point is fairness. It would be a shame if the Northville 4th of July Parade picked up the reputation that while being a great parade if you didn't get your chairs, blankets and tape out at least two days in advance by the time you got there all of the best viewing spots would already be gone. And it should be just common courtesy that the immediate curbside viewing spots be earmarked, if for anyone, for the smallest children, the handicapped, infirm seniors and others in similar situations or stations of life.

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