Skillful leadership, careful planning, strong organization, a multitude of enthusiastic volunteers, and excellent weather conditions all converged in Bethel on Monday, July 4, 1910. On that Independence Day, Bethel celebrated not only the nation’s birthday but also staged its inaugural attempt at a relatively recent New England phenomenon known as “Old Home Day”. Based on all written accounts, it was a tremendous triumph. The Newtown Bee reported that 4,250 attended the event, and a free dinner was served to 2,875. These numbers become even more impressive in light of the fact that the U.S. Census taken that same year would reveal that the entire population of Bethel amounted to just 3,792 people.
The Origins of Old Home Day
The concept of Old Home Days originated with New Hampshire governor Frank Rollins near the dawn of the 20th century and initially involved a full week of festivities. He had specific goals in mind: he wanted native-born to return and buy the many abandoned farms in the state for summer homes. He also wanted them to donate money to spruce up the village common, to support the library and the meeting house. And he wanted the towns themselves to awaken from what he saw as a moral slumber. He wrote, “There have been, of course, reunions since the beginning of time, but my plan differed from the ordinary reunion in that it was to occupy a week in each year so that each one could make his plans to be back, and was to be recognized by the state as a permanent festival.” Rollins founded an Old Home Week Association and presided over the state’s first homecoming in 1899, with 44 New Hampshire towns holding celebrations during the last week in August. By 1907 the Old Home Day concept, in various formats, had expanded from New Hampshire to all of New England. Three years later, Bethel decided it was ready to join in the growing trend with a one-day celebration of its own.
Preparations for the Big Event
Spearheading the effort would be Bethel’s First Selectman William P. Bailey, businessman Isaiah F. Terry, and building contractor Edgar T. Andrews. Along with being Bethel’s top elected official, Bailey served as an auditor for the state of Connecticut and made his home at 19 Andrews Street. Terry owned a prosperous lumber business and lived at what is now 12 Greenwood Avenue. Andrews, who resided at 49 Greenwood Avenue, provided the use of the open land he owned at the top of Hoyt’s Hill and was described as “one of the hardest workers for the success of the Old Home Day.”
What follows are contemporary news articles covering the remarkable community-wide event these individuals and so many others made possible. The pieces retain their original spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Commentary and explanation are added for clarification.
In the days leading up to the event, The Danbury News was filled with stories of preparations being made.
Arrangements Completed For Extensive Celebrations of Day
“Bethel will have one of the biggest days ever Monday. Nothing is being omitted which can in any way aid to make the affair a success, and the indications are that there will be a big crowd and a good time for everybody on Hoyt’s Hill. Part of the tents were erected yesterday and some of the tables and platforms, and by night, it is expected that the grounds will be in readiness for the ladies to commence their work early Monday morning. The hams were collected this morning and placed in the cooler and the remainder of the provisions will be called for early Monday morning.”
“There will be a general suspension of business on Monday, and everybody will celebrate the glorious Fourth and Bethel’s first Old Home Day. The meat and grocery stores will be closed all day. The post office will close at nine o’clock for the day, and the barber shops will be open until noon Monday.”
“The trolley company will send its street sprinkler to Bethel about five o’clock Monday morning and thoroughly wet down the streets so that all dust will be done away with, and afterward they will be rolled so that those taking part in the parade will have a comparatively easy time.”
“The school children who march in the parade will be presented with flags and will be given ice cream with their dinners. The Grassy Plain and Center Scholars will meet at their respective schools and the outer districts at the Fountain Park. Each teacher has been asked to take charge of her pupils before the parade and see that the lines are in order.”
As July 4 fell on a Monday, and it was generally accepted that strenuous labor was to be avoided on Sundays, Saturday, July 2 became the last chance to complete preparations. The edition of The Danbury News published on the afternoon of that day reported how the effort was progressing.
“At an early hour this morning a large force of men were on the grounds on Hoyt’s Hill, where the Old Home Day celebration will be held next Monday, ready to help in the work of building tables, seats and platforms. The latter, which will be used principally for dancing, was completed before noon. The several tents, which were expected yesterday, did not reach here until this morning, but J.W. Smith, of the New Haven company, who is here to superintend the work of erecting them, promises to make short work of it. As soon as the tents are up, the tables and seats can be built. It is again asked by the committee that all men who can possibly help, if only for a few hours, assist in the large amount of work to be done.”
“The committee of ladies, who have in charge the serving of the dinner, have asked that all ladies, who are willing to assist in the work, go up to the grounds Monday Morning. The ladies who have been named to serve are asked to take meat platters, and the waitress trays. The many boiled hams, which have been promised, will be collected at nine o’clock tomorrow morning so that they may be carved ahead of time.”
Everything was in place, and now townspeople crossed their fingers, praying that weather conditions would not spoil their strenuous efforts.
OLD HOME DAY ARRIVES
Collective hopes were realized when Independence Day dawned sunny and pleasant with a strong breeze that made the usual summer heat cheerfully tolerable. In recounting the activities that transpired that day, the Bethel News section of the Danbury newspaper carried the following pronouncement.
OLD HOME DAY A BIG SUCCESS
4,000 People Take Part in Fourth of July Festivities on Hoyt’s Hill
The headline was accompanied by the following article that provided the highlights of the day-long celebration.
“The biggest celebration ever held in Bethel is what they all say. And did anyone ever see more ideal weather for a Fourth of July celebration than yesterday? It would certainly seem that kind Providence lent its aid to Bethel’s maiden effort in an Old Home Day. The sun shone bright and warm. But the splendid breeze which blew all day tempered the heat so that after the torrid days which had preceded it, life was a pleasure. But not only was the weather ideal but the place where the affair was held also. A large vacant lot on Hoyt’s Hill was selected, and there, away from the noise or dust of traffic and yet easy of access, the affair took place. The site is an elevated one, and the view as one looked off in the distance was magnificent. The day was so clear that Danbury, Brookfield, Newtown, Redding, all the surrounding towns could be plainly discerned. It was Bethel’s big day, and one to be proud of.”
"There were at least 4,000 people who attended the celebration during the afternoon, but the grounds were so large that there was ample room for everyone and no crowding."
“At an early hour in the morning those having the affair in charge and their helpers began to gather on the grounds and there was great activity to prepare the tables and the food in readiness for the dinner to be served later. The food collectors soon began to bring in great wagon loads of victuals of all kinds, and more eatables were never gathered together in the town, for when all had partaken, there had seemingly been little impression made on the food, and the tent where it was stored was piled high with victuals of every description, much of which was sold later.”
Chronicling the Day's Activities
The Old Home Day celebration kicked off with a parade that began at the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Grassy Plain Street. The line of march proceeded up Greenwood Avenue to Andrews Street, then up Andrews Street to Highland Avenue, and then to the site of the celebration at the summit of Hoyt’s Hill. The Danbury News had listed the participating groups and individuals prior to the event.
The Order of the Parade
Chief Parade Marshall and Aides
Alert Hose Company
Uniformed Rank Knights of Pythias
Knights of King Arthur
Grassy Plain Hose Company
Grassy Plain School Children
Center School Children
Outer District School Children
Event Chairman Isaiah F. Terry
First Selectman William P. Bailey and Selectmen
Eureka Hook & Ladder Company
Bugle Corps of the Wooster Guards
Bethel Drum Corps
At this time, Bethel had three different fire departments. The Alert Hose Company had its headquarters at 18 Nashville Road. The Eureka Hook & Ladder Company was housed at 7 Elizabeth Street, and the Grassy Plain Hose Company was located at 264 Greenwood Avenue. In 1926 the Alert and Eureka companies were combined, and the Grassy Plain Company was phased out.
Bethel’s form of town government then included a board of selectmen for administering the affairs of the outlying portions of the town and a warden and board of six burgesses that governed the affairs of the borough of Bethel that was confined to the downtown area.
The “Outer District Schools” consisted of Stony Hill, Elmwood, Plumtrees, and Wolfpits.
The Knights of Pythias and Knights of King Arthur were both fraternal organizations.
For many, the most impressive sight in the parade was the group of over six hundred schoolchildren, all marching in carefully aligned rows down Greenwood Avenue. The Danbury paper stated that they “made one of the prettiest sights imaginable, and the long line of little children, nearly all clad in dainty white and each carrying an American flag, was worth seeing.”
The Danbury News also commented on how Bethel’s citizens had visibly demonstrated both their patriotic and civic pride.
“The decorations, especially along the line of march, were profuse and pretty.”
The Danbury publication also told of a dispute that erupted at the parade’s staging point that had nearly caused the event’s cancellation.
“The parade was first on the scheduled program. The line of march was to have been formed at the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Grassy Plain Street and start at 10:30, but it was nearer noon when the line finally started. The delay was due to a disagreement between the musical organizations which were to furnish the music and was the one unpleasant feature of the day; in fact, it was lamentable and, in the opinion of most people uncalled for, and should have been settled before that late hour of the day. The trouble for a time threatened to break up the parade entirely, but matters were finally adjusted, and the line proceeded.”
The three musical groups involved in the controversy were the Bethel Drum Corps, the Danbury Drum and Bugle Corps of the Wooster Guards, and the Danbury Band. It also involved the Eureka Hook & Ladder Company, the Bethel fire company that had invited the Danbury Drum and Bugle Corps to accompany them in the parade. The Bethel Drum Corps and the Danbury Band had a standing policy that, as they contained only individuals who were members of the Martial Musicians Union, they would not march in any parade that included musical groups composed of non-union members. A spokesman for the Bethel Drum Corps, Harry Mead, said that his group had informed parade organizers that they would not march in the parade if the non-union Danbury Drum and Bugle Corps participated. He was under the impression that the Danbury corps had been excluded until his group arrived at the parade’s starting point. The resulting dispute held up the start of the parade for an hour and a half. This disagreement, which was only alluded to in the primary article about Old Home Day, was covered more fully in an adjacent column.
THE PARADE INCIDENT
“The disagreement between the musicians who were to furnish music for the parade yesterday in the Old Home Day celebration arose it is claimed because of the fact that the Wooster Bugle and Drum corps were to be in line and that this was objected to by the Danbury band and the Bethel drum corps.”
“Without going into lengthy details a brief statement is given from each organization.”
“Harry Mead, president of the Martial Musicians’ union, who is a member of the Bethel Drum Corps, stated this morning, that they notified the members of the truck company a week ago that it would be impossible for the musicians’ union to participate in a parade with the Wooster Bugle corps as their organization was non-union. He also stated that the trouble was not a new one as the matter was one that had been pending for two years at least.”
“H.W. Ruffles, secretary of the Danbury band, when interviewed, concurred with the above statement and said the band took the same view of the matter.”
“W.A. Andrews, president of the Drum and Bugle corps, stated that he was unable to take part in the parade yesterday through illness, and was not thoroughly conversant with the subject. He understood that the corps believed that the celebration was being given for the Village Improvement society of Bethel and wishing to help along the good work and knowing full well that they would be keeping no other musical organization out of job, they volunteered their services free of charge to march with the Eureka Hook and Ladder company.”
“The Danbury band, which had been engaged by the Old Home Day committee, did not play in the parade but finally took a trolley car to the grounds where they played during the afternoon.”
“The Bethel Drum Corps, which was hired by the Alert Hose company, withdrew from the parade, and marched ahead of the procession to the hose house where they disbanded.”
“The Wooster Bugle and Drum corps marched in the parade to the grounds where, after dining, they escorted the hook and ladder company back to its house.”
A representative for the Eureka Hook & Ladder Company disputed the statements made by both Harry Mead and H.W. Ruffles in a letter to the editor of The Danbury News immediately afterward. The squabble undoubtedly dampened the spirit of the occasion and created lasting animus. As the newspaper correctly observed, “it was the one unpleasant feature of the day.”
ARRIVING AT HOYT’S HILL
Once the parade was concluded, the next order of business was the consumption of the fabulous feast that was to be served at the peak of Bethel’s most familiar elevation.
“On reaching the grounds, a rush was made for the tables which had been spread to seat at one time, thirteen hundred persons. The tables were filled again and again and it was estimated that at least 3,000 were served. The menu included ham, chicken, and other cold meats, salads, baked beans, bread, coffee, and the accompanying relishes. Cake, of which there was an endless supply, was served with the ice cream. The scores of waiters and waitresses were untiring in their efforts to serve the people well, and they succeeded, for if anyone went hungry, it was their own fault.”
In what was probably viewed as a godsend by some, the portion of the day’s program that promised to provide an opportunity for local politicians and dignitaries to pontificate at extended length about the day’s glorious aspects was eliminated with a bit of help from Mother Nature.
“There was to have been speech-making after dinner on the dancing platform, but the strong wind which was blowing would have made it extremely difficult for the speakers or the immense throng to have heard their addresses, and the plan was finally given up, although it was hoped until a late hour in the day that it could be carried out. Two or three of Bethel's oldest residents were scheduled to make addresses.”
THE ATHLETIC EVENTS
“The main features of the afternoon were the athletic sports under the direction of Chairman John E. Melvin.”
The impressive array of contests that made up a vital portion of the program conducted at the top of Hoyt’s Hill included:
100 Yard Dash
Running High Jump
220 Yard Dash
Running Broad Jump
One-half Mile Run
Running, Hop, Skip, and Jump
Three Mile Race
The Rev. Albert T. Steele, the pastor of the Congregational Church, served as the referee for all events.
The two competing athletic groups were the St. Mary’s Young Men’s Christian Association and Bethel High School. The prize for the victorious team was described in the newspaper before the competition.
“A beautiful silver cup which will be given for high scoring in the athletic sports to be held in connection with the Old Home Day celebration next Monday is exhibited in the window of the English pharmacy. The cup will be awarded to the society or club which scores the highest number of points.”
The Danbury News and The Newtown Bee published a complete list of the top two finishers in every event. Both also announced the final winner of the coveted silver cup.
“The cup was won by the Bethel High School who had 58 points and the Y.M.C.A. 30 points.”
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
“Those who did not care for the sports found pleasure in visiting among their friends and there were scores of old friends who exchanged greetings with friends whom they had not seen in years in some instances. Besides the six large tents required for the dinner serving, there were a number of small tents pitched on the grounds where refreshments of all kinds were sold. In fact, the grounds bore a striking resemblance to a fairgrounds.”
“The sale of ice cream was enormous, almost 100 gallons was provided and found a ready sale. Harry Dickens, Willie Burr and Clifford Perkins, Clifford Durant, Ira Monroe, C.B. Short had charge of the sale.”
In addition to selling ice cream, a cadre of young boys were put to work, roaming the grounds to hawk peanuts, popcorn, candy, and bananas. Cigars and souvenir flags were also among the items offered to the crowd. A contingent of young girls sold name tags in the hopes of winning a prize to be awarded to the girl that sold the most. At the final count, 2,792 tags were sold and fifteen-year-old Minerva Allen of 56 Wooster Street was declared to be the winner after personally selling 366.
“After the sports, the remainder of the afternoon was spent in visiting and dancing on the large platform which had been erected for that purpose. The whole affair was well arranged and several committees are certainly deserving of great praise for their efforts and success in carrying it out.”
NO ONE WAS FORGOTTEN
“The committee sent teams wherever notified, for many aged and infirm persons, who otherwise could not have reached the grounds. A wagonette was also in waiting at the end of the trolley to convey any to the grounds who could not climb the hill.”
Teams in this instance meant a team of horses pulling a wagon. A wagonette is a four-wheeled horse-drawn pleasure vehicle, typically open, with facing side seats and one or two seats arranged crosswise in front.
In 1910, Bethel’s trolley line terminated at the junction of Greenwood and Milwaukee Avenues.
THE FIREWORKS DISPLAY
The grand finale of the day’s events was to be a fireworks display, and the press gave it a big buildup. The fireworks were under the direction of Howard S. Hoyt, a twenty-eight-year-old hat factory worker who lived at 30 Hickok Avenue and “who personally raised the money and took the matter actively in hand.”
“The largest display of fireworks ever seen in this vicinity will be those shown on Hoyt’s Hill on the evening of July Fourth, commencing at eight o’clock.”
“It is estimated that the display will last nearly three hours. There will be no charge for admission to the grounds.”
One of Bethel’s earliest Asian businessmen, Chu Chun, demonstrated his patriotism by contributing. Chun had been born in China in 1862 and immigrated to America in 1881, just one year before the Chinese Exclusion Act barred most Chinese people from entering the United States.
“Chu Chun, the proprietor of the Center street Chinese laundry, has contributed a considerable quantity of firecrackers and other fireworks for the Old Home Day celebration next Monday, and they are now on exhibition in the window of Ohlweiler’s barber shop. They consist of two boxes of firecrackers, one containing thirty thousand and the other fifty thousand, or eighty thousand firecrackers in all. They are not like the ordinary crackers, but are to be suspended on strings. There are also in the collection some other curious pieces.”
The laundry operated by Chu Chun and the barbershop run by Louis Ohlweiler occupied adjoining storefronts within the building now designated as 103 Greenwood Avenue, across from Caraluzzi’s Market.
Elected officials took measures to ensure that the Hoyt’s Hill fireworks display would not be subject to competition and that celebrating citizens would consider others.
“The warden and burgesses announce that the firing of any explosives, including fireworks, on the Fourth, on Hoyt’s Hill, Andrews street or Highland avenue, at any time during the day or evening, will not be allowed, and this rule they will strictly enforce. They also forbid any firing at or near places where there are sick people, and any notice given the borough officials of such sick persons will receive attention.”
The Danbury News also featured an article specifically devoted to the fireworks that contained a lengthy and detailed list of every type of device that was to be detonated. Most had exotic names such as Columbus blossoms, diamond stars, palmetto trees, Chinese fans, Fleur de Lis, silver maples, and dragon nests. In addition, the entertainment would include set-pieces consisting of miniature flares called lances mounted on wooden frames that, when ignited, promised to produce colorful illuminated images of the American flag and Niagara Falls.
When the evening's much-anticipated pyrotechnic display did take place, it did not disappoint.
“The fireworks celebration was the event of the evening and it was by far the biggest thing of the kind ever attempted in Bethel. This event was entirely in charge of Howard S. Hoyt and was not under the supervision of the Old Home Day Committee. The display was a magnificent one and sent up as it was from the high point of ground was enjoyed not only by the thousands on the grounds, for there were even more present than during the afternoon, but by many who viewed the pretty spectacle from a distance. The pieces, the rockets, and other fireworks set off were among the latest novelties in fireworks. Mr. Hoyt paraded the streets in the morning in a big wagon on which was most attractively arranged the fireworks for the evening. Mr. Hoyt was attired as Uncle Sam. Taking it all in all, it was a huge success and one of which Bethel may well be proud.”
Two days later, while the town’s citizens were still buzzing about the event’s magnificent outcome, the newspapers related how all reminders of the memorable day were quickly disappearing.
“It is probable that by to-night, every vestige of the Old Home Day celebration will have disappeared from the big lot on Hoyt’s Hill. The many tents were all taken down and shipped away yesterday, while tables, seats, etc., were also torn down. This morning the grounds were being cleaned up. It was a big-time and just what it was intended to be, not a money making plan, but just a reunion and gathering together for a general good time.”
Flushed with the universal praise received for staging the most successful community event in Bethel’s history, many may have felt that from here on, everything was possible. Despite the optimism of such individuals, one final newspaper notice exposed the sobering reality.
“The food committee announces that all unclaimed dishes may be found at Morgan’s grocery store and that it is desirable that they be called for as soon as possible, especially pans which contained beans, as it was impossible for the ladies to wash all of these.”
Old Home Days: A Brief History, The New England Historical Society
History of Old Home Day, The Campton Historical Society, Campton, New Hampshire
Special thanks are extended to the Bethel Historical Society for the use of historical photographs from their collection.
Additional thanks are extended to the dedicated staff of The Danbury History Museum & Historical Society for their assistance in accessing articles from The Danbury News.