“The Fourth was the day of the year that really counted then. Christmas
wasn’t much,” said Miss Nettie Spencer sitting in the kitchen of her Southwest Portland home, in 1938.
“The big event of the year was the Fourth of July. Everyone in the countryside got together on that day for the only time in the year.”
Spencer’s memories of life in rural Oregon, mere decades after statehood, are preserved with some 2,900 other documents in the Library of Congress as part of the Folklore Project.
The New Deal program spanned from 1936 to 1940 with 300 writers across 24 states detailing the life stories of Americans.
By the time Miss Nettie Spencer remembers celebrating the Fourth of July, Independence Day had been established a federal holiday. Americans were celebrating from Maine to Oregon.
Here are Spencer’s memories of Fourth of July in Corvallis in the 1870s:
The big event of the year was the Fourth of July. Everyone in the countryside got together on that day for the only time in the year. The new babies were shown off, and the new brides who would be exhibiting babies next year. Everyone would load their wagons with all the food they could hawl and come to town early in the morning. On our first big Fourth at Corvallis mother made two hundred gooseberry pies. You can see what an event it was.
There would be floats in the morning and the one that got the [girls?] eye was the 6 Goddess of Liberty. She was supposed to be the most wholesome and prettiest girl in the countryside [md] if she wasn’t she had friends who thought she was. But the rest of us weren’t always in agreement on that. She rode on a hay-rack and wore a white gown. Sometimes the driver wore an Uncle Sam hat and striped pants. All along the sides of the hay-rack were little girls who represented the states of the union. The smallest was always Rhode Island. (All this took place at Corvallis and the people from Albany used to come up river by boat.)
Following the float would be the Oregon Agricultural College cadets, and [some / kind?] of a band. Sometimes there would be political [effigies?]. Just before lunch — and we’d always hold lunch up for an hour — some Senator or lawyer would speak. These speeches always had one pattern. First, the speaker would challenge England to a fight and [berate?] the King and say that he was a skunk. This was known as twisting the lion’s tail. Then the next theme was that anyone could find freedom and liberty on our shores. The speaker would invite those who were heavy laden in other lands to come to us and find peace.
The speeches were pretty fiery and by that time the men who drank got into fights and called each other Englishmen. In the afternoon we had what we called the ‘plug uglies’ [md] funny floats sad clowns who took off on the political subjects of the day. There would be some music and then the families would start gathering together to go home. There were cows waiting to be milked and the stock to be fed and so there was no night life. The Fourth was the day of the year that really counted then. Christmas wasn’t much; a Church tree or something, but no one twisted the lion’s tail.