Howell County Historical Celebration of the Fourth

Willow Springs celebrated the 4th of July with a parade this past Saturday for the twenty-sixth year in a row. It was one of the best in memory, despite the pandemic. The crowd was spread over a wider area along Main Street than in previous years. In the recent past, most observers gathered downtown. 
No such social distancing occurred July 4, 1919, in West Plains in the middle of the Spanish Flu pandemic. The focus of that year's 4th was a welcome for our troops returning from World War 1. For this event, around ten thousand people crammed the West Plains square for fireworks, the most massive crowd recorded on the Fourth to date.
Howell County's history of celebration on Independence Day spans at least one hundred twenty years. There were years when our communities chose a more subdued observance, but it seems more often than not, the Fourth was the biggest day of the year for gathering in our communities. 
Looking over Howell County newspapers, it seems some of the longest and most interesting celebrations occurred in the early 1900s. In that period, Willow Springs, West Plains, and Mountain View had three- day celebrations, and Willow Springs had a downtown parade each of the three days. The towns often supported each other in attendance. 
In 1906, the West Plains Journal noted, "Patriotism ran at flood tide in our neighboring town of Willow Springs on the glorious Fourth. The day was an ideal one for the exercises. All nature seemed to join in the outburst of patriotic demonstration. About three hundred West Plains people attended the Willow Springs festivities. About 150 people from West Plains boarded the early morning train, including the West Plains band. Some went on Number 4 (train) Tuesday afternoon, while some went on the local Wednesday morning, and still others drove across the country."
"The merchant's parade, headed by the Willow Springs drum corps at 10 o'clock, was one of the best we ever saw in Howell County. It would have done credit to Springfield or Kansas City."
The article listed winners of prizes for decorated floats, in this era pulled by horses or mules, and a local minister addressed the crowd on the significance of the day. The Journal continued,
"One of the most beautiful sights ever witnessed by human eyes was the flag drill by thirty-two little girls in the afternoon. Each little girl carried a flag, and their drill was perfect as trained soldiers. Baseball in the afternoon was the chief source of amusement. Willow Springs and Winona were the contending forces on the ball ground, and the game resulted in favor of Willow Springs by a score of four to two."
"At night, elaborate fireworks added to the beauty and splendor of the occasion. The students of the Springfield Normal School rendered a beautiful and funny opera, 'Mikado," a Japanese play, at Frank Sass' new Opera House on Second Street. This is one of the prettiest little opera houses in South Missouri. There is, perhaps, nothing that equals it in artistic beauty and convenience between Springfield and Memphis." 
"Willow Springs handled the immense crowd of the day with the greatest ease and order. They had several extra police on duty, but did not seem to need any of them. It was one of the most orderly large crowds we ever witnessed. While there was some drinking, we did not see a man during the whole day that showed the influence of intoxicating drinks."
The next year, 1907, was West Plains' turn in the limelight. The West Plains Journal related, "Thursday morning dawned clear and bright, and soon the irrepressible small boy and his elder brother were busy shooting holes in the atmosphere. The noise began late Wednesday afternoon, and with but a temporary lull in the early hours of Thursday morning, continued until late Thursday night. The crowd began to gather early, and Court Square was a busy place during the morning as the pleasure seekers, in most cases, halted for a spell on their way to the Park. The businesses closed at noon, and almost the entire population of the city was at Peoples' Park in the afternoon. The attendance from the country was unusually large, there being almost a continuous procession of vehicles and horseback riders on the various roads entering West Plains during the morning hours. Some of the horses carried double, and the farm wagons and hacks were filled with rosy-cheeked girls and sturdy boys and young men, not to mention the head of the family and his better half. It was a jolly, good-natured crowd, and a very orderly one."
"The basket dinner in the Park was an occasion long to be remembered by the participants. The slaughter of yellow-legged frying chickens on the previous day must have caused great consternation in the poultry yards of the county, judging from the mountains of the toothsome morsels which disappeared as if by magic during the dinner hour. Thousands of people participated in the basket dinner. The Springfield Military Band gave a concert at the Court House at 10 o'clock in the morning and then proceeded to the Park, where they furnished sweet music throughout the day.  The program was carried out in detail, but the greatest interest of the crowd centered on the sham battle between Company K (Missouri Guard) and Powhattan Tribe, which was realistic and thrilling to a degree. The stage robbery and recapture was also greatly appreciated."
"The fireworks in the evening were watched by a large crowd, and the park was not deserted until a late hour."
The celebration of the Fourth was an all-day affair. Things didn't always go as smoothly as described in 1906 and 1907. In 1909 during the West Plains celebration, the Journal reported, "Jim Coffman, an electrician employed by the city, was hit with a brick last Saturday morning and three of his ribs fractured. The injury, though a painful one, does not keep Coffman confined to his home. Coffman was imitating the illustrious William Tell when the accident occurred. His superior, W.A. Britain, superintendent of the City Water and Light Plant, is quite an expert with the shotgun and was determined to win a prize at the shooting tournament. Coffman tied a brick in an old cap and tossed it in the air to let Britain shoot it for practice. The experiment was a success, so far as Britain was concerned, but it proved disastrous for Coffman. A well-directed shot tore the cap from the brick. Coffman believing the brick was still in the cap, stepped aside to dodge the falling target. The cap fell to the ground, but the brick struck Coffman in the back, fracturing three ribs. He will never try to emulate the example of William Tell again."
Shooting matches during the 4th of July celebrations were common. In 1913, the Three Day Celebration in Mountain View included a biscuit eating contest, egg race, ladies foot race, sack race, fat man's race, pretty baby contest, old settler's contest, man and pony race, wheelbarrow race, slow mule race, baseball games, a basketball game, and The Willow Springs Marine Band, composed of fifteen boy scouts directed by J. Nolan Wilton. The boys entertained the crowd for all three days - their first outing since they were formed a few months before. Wilton's marching band went on to tour the area extensively for several years after that, traveling to surrounding towns by train. 
The Mountain View Standard reported, "Then came the big event of the program, the "old maids' for a bachelor" event. There were six entries in this race and only four bachelors as prizes, so you may have some idea of how the ladies exceeded the speed limit. Early in the race, one of the ladies developed tire troubles. The two on either side with their eyes on the goal never noticed the wreckage strewn in their path, and even the emergency failed to save them a collision. This left only three in the race, and Miss Ruth Pittenger was the first one to reach and grab a bachelor. The others soon arrived.  There were four bachelors and only three old maids. Each one wanted the extra bachelor, and while fussing over it, all of the bachelors who had to be guarded all the time, broke away and escaped. Then pandemonium did break loose."
Another event was a "single quick hitch" horse race down Main Street in Mountain View, described thus, "Each horse, which was to pull a single buggy, was unbridled in front of its rig. Their drivers, at a signal, were to harness and hitch the horses to the buggies and drive 50 yards. Both jumped into their buggies at the same time, and the race was a tie." 
The festivities were topped off by a long speech from N. B. Wilkenson of Willow Springs, " on the benefits of socialism." Complete success of the three-day celebration was darkened just a little by the absence of a steam-driven merry-go-round that had been there the year before. That sounds a bit scary to me anyway. I can't imagine half of these activities being pulled off at a public event with today's sensibilities, insurance liabilities, and cancel culture, but it does all sound like fun.  The next year, 1914, Mountain View dropped it down a notch, making the holiday a two-day event.
I wasn't going to include this, but why not. In the otherwise totally successful celebration in West Plains' 1907 Fourth at Peoples' Park mentioned above, Harry Knowlton and Charles Wells got into a fight over an insult to Knowlton's wife by Wells. Howell County Sheriff W.S. Morgan arrested the pair, but John Hollingshad, brother-in-law to Knowlton tried to interfere with the arrest and got roughly handled by the sheriff as a result. The Journal reported, "Hollingshad declared there were not enough men in West Plains to arrest him, but the sheriff soon demonstrated that one man was enough."
On the way to the jail, Hollingshad broke and ran from the sheriff, who went on and put Knowlton in jail and went out looking for Hollingshad. The paper continued, "He caught sight of him in the east part of town, and firing a shot in his direction soon brought him to time. Just as the sheriff was putting his pistol up, the horse jumped, and the weapon was discharged, the ball striking him in the calf of the right leg and going entirely through, making a bad flesh wound. The sheriff remained on the horse and marched Hollingshad back to the jail, where he remains at present, and then proceeded uptown, where Doctors Shuttee and Reiley dressed the wound, after which he was taken to his home, where he is now getting along as well as could be expected. This was the only disturbance reported in the county."
While things have toned down a bit in the last one hundred plus years, I'm proud to see that our enthusiasm and patriotic fervor remains for the annual celebration of the birthday this great nation in Howell County.

Howell County News

110 W. Main St.,
Willow Springs, MO 65793

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