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Glorious 4th of the past

Railroad ties ready to burn

The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, July 10, 1979

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg
(Article # 003)

Glorious 4th of the past

When laws against the sale of fireworks were passed some years ago, they put a damper on what used to be a noisy but joyous celebration in Burlington in honor of this nation’s birthday. Those fireworks helped the parades and long speeches to make the 4th of July a fitting tribute to a nation’s greatness, and gave both young and old an understanding and a meaning to that feeling of pride in one’s country, called patriotism. Who cannot remember, providing that he is past 40, of the many boyhood days spent mowing lawns, weeding carrots, or running errands just to save enough money so that a week or so before the 4th, he could bike to Woburn or some other center to buy salutes, mini-crackers in bunches, torpedoes, sparklers or pinwheels and skyrockets in those places, which advertised in big bold red letters, “Fireworks.”

Boys being boys, most purchases were often spent well in advance of the 4th, often to help along the excitement of the night before. Girls usually made great use of sparklers. Dad took part too, he being the one who usually placed the big firecrackers under a tin can or pail to see it blown high into the air. Mother, who hated all firecrackers in general, cautioned everyone to be careful while dreading burnt fingers or unpredictable accidents.

Before the start of World War II, Burlington used to celebrate the night before the 4th with a bonfire built on the highest point in Simonds Park. In the 1930s, they were nothing more than built-up piles of brush collected by the Highway Department. In the late 30s, however, there were some really big ones which were sponsored by the Burlington Civic Club. They were constructed of old railroad ties, odd scraps of lumber, packing crates and wooded barrels. The whole rose some 40 or 60 feet into the air and was capped by a flagpole and bunting. Loren Blenkhorn was in charge of collecting materials and Stewart Oldford was in charge of construction. But anyone was encouraged to help.

A carnival was held in the lower park with a ferris wheel and a merry-go-round. Various town organizations such as church groups and the Grange set up booths. When the pile was ignited at midnight, the flames could be seen for miles around, and the several thousand people who came to watch stood in clusters on the baseball field or along Bedford Street and Church Lane to cheer or watch in awe as the flames rose high into the night sky.

WWII paused these celebrations, but they resumed soon after. Unfortunately, the last one, in 1947, caused more than a half dozen fires from sparks carried by the wind. One of the small fires was at Aunt Nettie Foster’s house on the State Road (Cambridge Street). It must have been an act of Providence that sparks from any blaze never settled on the old Meeting House (now the UCC). Both Louis Skelton and Herbert Crawford can remember helping with that 1947 event, and they mention (with a chuckle) the day Marshall Britt got caught after dark at the top of the pile and had to be helped down from the “dizzying” height. Yet Marshall was the young man who flew his airplane from the airfield then at the corner of Bedford Street and the Turnpike and for a small fee would fly anyone over and around the town at heights far in excess of the railroad tie tower he helped to build.

When Marshall Simonds deeded his farm to the Town of Burlington for a public park he also had plans drawn up for a tower to be built of fieldstone and erected on that high spot of land. Those plans were in the hands of Arthur Nichols several years later and since he thought the whole thing rather impractical he probably hid them away after Simonds died.

The Burlington Men’s Civic Club was organized in 1937 “for the purpose of civic betterment and to promote the building of a high school in Burlington.” The constitution of the club adopted that June was signed by George Perkins, Maurice DeMone, Ernst Makechnie, Loren Blenkhorn, Carl Bussey, William Porter and Chester MacDonald. Besides the bonfire and fireworks display for Independence Day, the club also sponsored a Strawberry Festival and an Agricultural Fair. In April of 1942, in the auditorium of Burlington’s first high school, the club displayed a service flag bearing 92 stars, one for each of Burlington’s young men who had entered the armed forces by that time. That flag, with more than three hundred stars, now hangs in the town’s little museum, once the Center Schoolhouse.

The 4th of July is the birthday of two fine Burlington men: Edmund Skelton, born onto one of Burlington’s oldest and most distinguished families, arrived on the scene in 1918: Arthur Kerrigan, in the company of the many members of his family, celebrated his 93rd birthday last Wednesday in a Winchester Nursing Home. Arthur and his brother once farmed the whole area now occupied by the Marshall Simonds Middle School and most of those houses fronting on Winn Street from Peach Orchard Road to Locust Street. Before the turn of the century it was known as Walker’s Annex.

In 1826, this new nation made great plans to celebrate its 50th birthday in a country-wide jubilee. Citizens everywhere were urged to participate in making the occasion one to remember. And it is remembered, not for the celebration that day, but because two of the three living signers of the Declaration of Independence died within hours of one another that 4th of July: Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and John Adams of Massachusetts.

What Burlington did to celebrate Independence Day in that Jubilee year is not recorded. It has been an independent member of the Commonwealth for only 27 years.

Civic Club bonfire Burlington MA