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By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, July 4, 1980.
Source: Galveston DAILY NEWS, July 5, 1896.

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If Beaumont's Independence Day of 1896 were any indicator, it marked the year that that city re-entered the Union and the day that Beaumonters were once again proud to call themselves Americans.

One published account of July 5, 1896 remarked that:

"This day has been a whizzer! Never before in her history has Beaumont seen such a display of industry and such a day of genuine personal pleasure. In years gone by, the Fourth of July has come and gone and Beaumont has passed it without notice. But now she is a city, and today has served for her debut."

Were Beaumonters really so genuinely unpatriotic back then? Not really, but a century in retrospect, it is difficult, or perhaps impossible, to gauge and comprehend the intensity of war hatreds that still lingered. And nearly every white male Beaumonter of that post-bellum period was a Confederate veteran.

At any time between 1865 and 1876, when the southern states were occupied by Federal troops and 'scalawag,' carpetbagger regimes controlled state governments, every attempt was made to make Confederate veterans feel guilty for having started the "late unpleasantness" known as the American Civil War. Most of the Beaumont townsmen were barred from public office by the "Ironclad Oath," which eliminated all persons who had sworn allegiance to the Confederates States or born arms agains the United States. The presence of Federal troops, many of whom were former slaves, was a constant reminder that Beaumonters were American only by bayonet law, and not by choice.

Well into the 1880s, northern congressmen continued to "wave the bloody shirt," reminding Southern Democrats that they were the party of rebellion who had triggered a conflict costing more than 600,000 lives. But even then there were movements afoot to heal the breach. Delegations from the Grand Army of the Republic came south to New Orleans to decorate the graves of fallen Confederates, and members of the United Confederate Veterans went north to Chicago to honor the graves of Northern soldiers.

Before 1861, East Texans celebrated Independence Day in as lavish a manner as that frontier era afforded. The grandfathers of many early Beaumonters had fought in the American Revolution, and their exploits were passed down from father to son. And after all, had not Beaumonters had their own very special American Revolutionary war veteran, John Baptiste Chaison, whose tales of the war with England had been a source of local pride until his death at age 109 in 1854?

As an example of those early-day celebrations, all of the citizens of Orange, Texas, turned out on July 4, 1859, for an entire day of merry-making and patriotism. The Declaration of Independence was read, and the main speaker "showed up the British in true colors, giving a lively review of their granddaddies' ups and downs during the American Revolution." The Orange Brass Band played martial refrains while the tables were being emptied of tons of barbeque. The celebration ended with a "grand ball, a few empty bottles," and lots of fireworks.

However, General Robert E. Lee's surrender of the Confederacy's troops at Appomattox, Va., in 1865, and the subsequent harsh treatment of most Southerners during the Reconstruction years removed any display of patriotism thereafter during Beaumont's Independence Days of the post-bellum years. The mills, stores,and other functions always closed for the day, but the citizens celebrated July 4 as if it were Labor Day or Sunday.

On July 4, 1876, the nation's Centennial birthday or anniversary, "the citizens of Beaumont assembled at the depot of the Texas and New Orleans Railroad, mounted the flat cars that had been kindly arranged for their accommodation by the railroad contractors, went out 24 miles from town and celebrated the day by having a basket picnic."

"We (Beaumonters) had no orations or reading of the Declaration of Independence, nor anything unusual to distinguish it from picnics generally. The ride on the railroad was very pleasant indeed. The strong breeze, created by the motion of the train, connected with the sweet strains of music from the Beaumont Brass Band, under the leadership of Mr. J. E. Jirou, rendered the trip to and from the ground not one of the insignificant pleasures of the day."

On July 4, 1885, the residents of Beaumont joined those of Orange, Sabine Pass, and Johnson's Bayou, La., traveling by steamboat to Grigsby's Bluff (Port Neches). Several hundred persons were fed there at a gigantic fish fry. Otherwise, the day was consumed with playing games and digging ancient relics from the Indian mounds, but again no display of patriotism was manifested.

By 1896, however, Beaumont, by then a booming city of 8,000 persons, had shed many of its prinvincial attitudes. New generations had grown to adulthood, and the hatreds of yesteryear had subsided somewhat. The population was more cosmopolitan as hundreds of newcomers, many of them from Iowa, Nebraska, and elsewhere, had flocked to Southeast Texas, principally to engage in rice farming or to man many of Beaumont's new industries. And five new railroad systems connected the town with all neighboring points.

Perhaps local pride, as much as patriotism, spawned the 1896 celebration. Preparations began a month in advance, and invitations went out to all the neighboring communities. The following account provides some insight into the events of the day and the large crowds in attendance, as follows:

"Early in the morning, despite the threatening weather, the people began clustering around the various depots to watch incoming trains from seven directions and meet relatives. The bands began playing and for the moment the depots were minor attractions."

"But the steam whistles outclassed the music, and the crowds were soon pouring out of the trains and surging in one solid mass along the thoroughfares. The business streets were lined with draperies and decorations of every kind, and the preparations far exceeded those of Beaumont's great day -- Christmas."

"While the crowds were surging back and forth along the business streets, the scenes around the City Hall were full of bustle and hurry. The procession that was just then beginning to form there would have made P. T. Barnum and his mile-end parade overflow with envy."

C. S. Brown was the grand marshal as the parade of horse-drawn floats threaded along a route from Main to Crockett Streets, then down Pearl to College and out to Blanchette Park. And almost every Beaumont industry or business house had an entry in the two-mile procession. The newspaper account continued:

"On one float, upon a trough in the center, rested a half-ton of ice made by Beaumont's mammoth factory. Another float, drawn by four large horses, bore a brace of car wheels manufactured in Beaumont by her iron foundry."

The next float was an old-fashioned log cart, bearing two heavy logs and the notation "Timber anfd Lumber Industry." The Texas Tram and Lumber Company had profusely ornamented its entry with a variety of flags and striped bunting.

Among those represented in the "grand trades display" were floats of the Reliance Lumber Co., Beaumont Lumber Co., Beaumont Furniture Factory, Blanchette Brickyard, Long Manufacturing Co., Consolidated Export Lumber Co., the railroads, civic societies, fire companies, the Jeff Davis Rifles, and at least fifty more, representing every branch of the retail trades.

Upon reaching the park, the brass bands struck up the national anthem, after which Hal W. Greer read the Declaration of Independence. And suddenly, as each goose pimple verified the presence of a new pride and patriotism, even the most case-hardened of the ex-Confederates among them found it an opportune moment to shed the hates of the past and rejoin the ranks of Americans.

The meal for the day consisted of 30 barbecued beeves. The afternoon was consumed with races and games of all sorts, judged by Ed. P. Gray, Jeff Chaison, W. L.Douglass, L. P. Ogden, and P. M. Wiess. Dancing at the pavilion continued throughout the day, followed that night by fireworks and a grand ball.

That momentous occasion of 1896 was to be followed by many more in the twentieth century. And after the First World War and the advent of veterans organizations, Pearl Street resounded with the echoes of brass bands and bass drums as Beaumont experienced a rebirth of patriotism on each July 4th. Somehow, the celebrations always ended up in the parks where mounds of watermelons and barbecue were consumed, and the Democratic primary candidates broached their promises and lambasted their opponents.

Since 1945, the changing patterns in American society are also reflected in the celebration of July 4. Family recreation at the lakes and beaches has become the popular substitute, and the parades and barbecues of yesteryear are but dim memories in the minds of the oldsters. Perhaps the flag-waving and brass bands have passed into exile for all time, but a fierce pride in America and everything that nation stands for certainly lingers on in place of it.

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Copyright 1998-2023 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, the material published on this site is copyrighted by William T. Block.
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