Arts and Leisure

The Biggest (But Not the Most Fun) July 4th Celebration in the U.S.

A U.S. president had to sneak a drink and a Supreme Court justice tried to get out of going to the annual July 4th celebration in Woodstock, Conn.

Henry Ward Beecher speaking at Woodstock, Conn, President Grant seated. From a Harper's Weekly engraving courtesy Library of Congress.

Henry Ward Beecher speaking at Woodstock, Conn, President Grant seated. From a Harper’s Weekly engraving courtesy Library of Congress.

During the second half of the 19th century, the small Connecticut town boasted the largest July 4th party in the United States.

It was not the kind of raucous celebration typical of the decades after the Civil War. Its host, Henry C. Bowen, was a teetotaler and a staunch Congregationalist. Pink lemonade was served, fireworks were set off for (not by) spectators and many, many speeches were given.

A Temperate July 4th

Some of the most prominent people of the era delivered speeches, including three presidents: Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison and Rutherford B. Hayes. Other notable speakers included Julia Ward Howe, John Fremont and Henry Ward Beecher.

Roseland Cottage

Henry Chandler Bowen, ‘Mr. Fourth of July,’ was a wealthy businessman who made his money in the dry goods business. He also published a religious newspaper, The Independent. Bowen helped found the Republican Party and for several years served as Abraham Lincoln’s collector of Internal Revenue for the 2nd district of New York. He had played a role in bringing Lincoln to Cooper Union for his historic speech in 1860.

Bowen had a thing for the color pink. In 1846, he built a 20-room summer home in his hometown of Woodstock and painted it pink. He called it Roseland Cottage after his wife’s favorite flower and decorated it with pink upholstery, pink linens and pink china.

Its extensive grounds included a manmade lake, 21 flower beds with at least 4,500 aunuals. He also built an indoor bowling alley (now the oldest in the U.S.)  in the carriage house.

Henry Chandler Bowen by James Swayer (probably)

 

Starting in 1870, he hosted the huge July 4th celebration. The festivities included a reception for as many as 500 on the cottage grounds and a separate party for the hoi polloi in Roseland Park. (Bowen had paid to drain a swamp and build the park.)

President Grant spoke at the first celebration on the Roseland grounds. Afterward he bowled his first strike in the indoor bowling alley. He also spent the night in Bowen’s house, though Bowen didn’t allow drinking or smoking inside. Grant then smoked cigars on the porch and enjoyed a surreptitious cocktail.

Sermons and Sunday School Talk

The party in Roseland Park sounds like a lot more fun than the reception on the cottage grounds. It featured band concerts, games and huge amounts of strawberry shortcake and lemonade (pink, of course).  At night a torchlight parade marched to the park, followed by a huge fireworks display.

The reception at the cottage had its moments. Caterers from New York City made the food, and hundreds of lanterns illuminated the gardens at night. But then there was the oratory.

The New York Times in 1884 listed the lineup: Gov. John D. Long of Massachusetts made the opening speech. The Hon. George H. Boker of Philadelphia then read a poem. Then the speeches including Benson J. Lossing on “Columbus: His Place in History,” the Rev. Henry Stinson on Worcester on “Aggressive Reformation and Agricultural Commissioner George B. Loring on “Parks and Highways.” Those didn’t end it, though. Dr. J.H. Vincent spoke on “The Every-Day College,” former Kansas Gov. J.R. St. John on “Prohibition” and, finally, Joseph Cook of Boston on “Ultimate America.”

One year, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., delivered a poem at Woodstock about his ancestors, many buried nearby. He came reluctantly, and only if the weather was good. “If I come and am wanted to say a few words at the proper time I could hardly refuse,’ he wrote beforehand. “But as to sitting through sermons and Sunday school talk and temperance speeches, if all that is necessary, I shall put off my visit to Woodstock.”

Henry Chandler Bowen died in 1896. He gave the house and grounds to the community. Also known as the Pink House, Roseland Cottage is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Historic New England bought it in 1970; the public may now visit the house.

This story about July 4th in Woodstock, Conn., was updated in 2021.

Images: Roseland Cottage by By Carol M. Highsmith – Library of CongressCatalog: http://lccn.loc.gov/2011631587Image download: https://cdn.loc.gov/master/pnp/highsm/13300/13393a.tifOriginal url: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.13393, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52228471. 

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