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, Woodstock, Conn.

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. He helped found the Republican Party and for several years was Abraham Lincoln’s collector of Internal Revenue for the 2nd district of New York.

In 1846, Bowen built a Gothic Revival mansion called Roseland Cottage in his hometown of Woodstock as a summer home. Its extensive grounds included a manmade lake. He also built an indoor bowling alley in the carriage house.

Starting in 1870, he hosted the huge July 4th celebration on the Roseland grounds.

President Grant spoke at the first celebration, and afterward 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 smoked cigars on the porch and enjoyed a surreptitious cocktail.

Sermons and Sunday School Talk

One year, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., delivered a poem at Woodstock about his ancestors, many of whom were 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 2018. 

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