MODESTO — Little Modesto Village had been in existence for just 3½ years when its residents celebrated the community's first Fourth of July.
The colorful event established the pattern for years of future Fourth events that included the houses being draped in red, white and blue flags.
People-packed carriages and wagons crowded into the village from all over Stanislaus County, with flags flying and firecrackers popping. The 10 a.m. parade was led by the Modesto Brass Band, followed by carriages containing a chaplain, the "president of the day," a reader of the Declaration of Independence and the orator.
The procession ended on the Front (today's Ninth Street), where ceremonies were held in a festively decorated warehouse, with 1,500 people inside and a similar number outside.
It is of interest that the warehouse where that event occurred had been built by Charles Henry Huffman, who at the time lived in Modesto. He constructed a number of warehouses in Central Valley towns for the storage of wheat. Later, he became the founder of Merced and the builder of that area's first irrigation system.
Patriotism ran high in those early years, and almost everyone participated in the Independence Day celebrations. In fact, they became so elaborate that they weren't produced every year. An example was in the decade of the 1890s, when, after a successful 1892 July Fourth extravaganza, another didn't happen for seven years.
July 4, 1892, was a "grand celebration," said the Weekly News, and featured a military theme. By 8 a.m., farmers' wagons jammed the streets, and there were "carriage and wagon loads of beautiful young ladies and brawny young men." An Army band and an escort of officers met the ladies from Oakdale on Oakdale Road, bringing them into Modesto "amid the cheers of the participants and spectators."
Parade participants included the Army adjutant general with his staff and the 6th Infantry Regiment of 300 troops from Stockton, Fresno, Visalia and Modesto. Patriotic exercises were held in a cleared Ninth Street warehouse, followed by a military ball that night.
The 1899 Fourth festivities, chaired by Oramil McHenry, were also "grand," with residences and businesses "magnificently decorated" and a long parade winding through downtown. Competitive games included wool sack and hurdle races, bicycle races, donkey races, a man versus horse race, greased-pig race, tug of war, a baseball game and a scheduled fat-man race canceled due to the heat. Fireworks and a grand ball ended this "magnificent" Fourth.
Bare is the author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.