BY PATRICIA SANDERS
On July 4, 1910 a large commercial building on SE Stark Street burned to the ground, causing $35,000 in damage. (For more on the fire, see “How Montavilla Got its Own Fire Station”)
A year later Montavilla hosted its biggest-ever Independence Day celebration, one that warranted article after article in the Portland press. It was as if the citizens of Montavilla were saying to the world: we’re still here and we’re thriving. Montavilla had risen from tragedy like the mythical phoenix.
A group of Montavilla citizens— including members of the Montavilla Board of Trade— got together to plan the event and by mid-June had raised $300 and would manage to raise at least $200 more. They wanted an old-fashioned celebration, but they also wanted it to be “safe and sane.”
The variety of incendiary devices and firearms that accompanied the typical Independence Day activities made this holiday anything but safe and sane. Indeed, the death and injury rates had been steadily rising for years. No wonder The Journal of the American Medical Association described the Fourth of July as the “annual carnival of noise, smoke and bloodshed.” Tetanus, resulting from infected wounds, was of particular concern.
In response to these national health and safety issues, The Chicago Tribune began a campaign for a Safe and Sane Fourth of July in 1899. To raise awareness, each year it published the statistics of the holiday’s casualties. In 1908, public alarm reached a fever pitch, when Chicago experienced a record 13 deaths. The Safe and Sane Fourth movement gathered momentum and from 1909 casualties began to decline. Portland got on board in 1910, passing an ordinance prohibiting the sale of fireworks, except by license and only for use in authorized locations. Since merchants had already purchased fireworks for 1910, however, enactment of the new regulation was postponed until 1911.
1911 was a banner-year for the safety movement in the US and in Portland: 161 cities celebrated a safe and sane holiday and casualties were reduced by almost 50%. The La Grande Evening Observer reported on July 5 that Portland had no fires started by July 4 fireworks for the first time in recent history. No harm of any type was reported for the grand Montavilla celebration.
Somewhat ironically, Montavilla’s Independence Day began at sunrise with a 12-gun salute by Battery A of the Oregon National Guard. And it ended with fireworks, which were set off in a safe location. In between were a host of peaceful activities.
These began in the morning with a parade started at the intersection of NE 80th Avenue and NE Glisan Street and wound its way through Montavilla. William DeVeny (1853-1918), the Montavilla Buffalo Bill, led the way as Grand Marshal. DeVeny was a fitting choice, since this honor was typically bestowed upon a renown community leader and he seems to have been at the forefront of practically every civic effort in early 20th Century Montavilla.
At some point the parade would have turned south from Glisan, maybe at 78th Avenue and then headed east on SE Stark Street. The accompanying photo of the parade shows on the right a corner of the new Lewis Building, which replaced the one destroyed in 1910. Bystanders have gathered to watch the approaching parade. Two men on horseback lead a line of automobiles, as if ushering in the modern era.
I want to believe that the distant car filled with blurry shapes— right of the closest utility pole— holds the Goddess of Liberty and her entourage. The Goddess had been a staple of Independence Day celebrations for decades and contests to select the prettiest and most popular young woman were commonly used to raise funds for the festivities. At a penny a vote, 18-year-old Caroline Buehler was Montavilla’s winner in 1911.
The parade continued east on Stark until it arrived at SE 84th Avenue where Altamead Park began. Contrary to its name, this was not a public park— Montavilla did not have such a thing in 1911. Rather it was a newly platted, 62-acre housing tract about to go on the market, providing an open space that could accommodate a large crowd and varied activities. Because it as yet had no houses, it provided a safe place to set off fireworks.
All of Portland was invited to Montavilla’s celebration, but we know for sure that residents of Montavilla and Mount Tabor came, some 1,500 – 2,500 by newspaper estimates. As they gathered, the band played and then the Master of Ceremonies, John M. Conway, welcomed everyone to a sane celebration.
First on the program was the traditional oration, which was given by Robert C. Wright of Mount Tabor, a well-known attorney and Republican politician. He did not give the usual patriotic speech. Instead he addressed current issues, including industrial conditions and the dangers to America of the accumulations “vast fortunes” by tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller and Pierpont Morgan. Moreover, he advised Montavillans to not seek funding for a new library from another tycoon, Andrew Carnegie.
It’s odd that Wright took this stance on Carnegie because several of the organizers of the July 4 event had been working on just such a request. (Did they regret inviting him to speak?) Besides, Mount Tabor itself was supporting the library initiative in exchange for Montavilla supporting its campaign for a Mount Tabor Park improvement bond. To promote both causes, the two neighborhoods sent delegations to each other’s July Fourth events.
Clearly there were community objectives for the Montavilla celebration, but this also included the customary symbolism of America’s revolution and values. The serious part of the celebration ended with the flag being raised, the band playing the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and the Goddess of Liberty paying witness.
Then it was on to the picnic and the games. There were races, baseball, a tug-of-war, a greased pig chase as well as prizes distributed by Rev. Father James Fitzpatrick, pastor of the Church of the Ascension.
The celebration ended in the evening with a band concert and fireworks (but no firecrackers). It had been a safe and sane day, indeed, and, moreover, one with perfect, balmy weather— such a contrast to the killer heat wave then plaguing the eastern half of the United States.
How lucky to be in Montavilla on July 4, 1911.
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Read all of the “Montavilla Memories” articles by Pat Sanders here.