4th of July, 1934

by Henry Swain

The month of July 1934 proved to be the beginning of one of the driest summers on record in Indiana. It was during the middle of the Great Depression and the haze and humidity hung over our farming community like a dirty sheet that needed laundering.

The Fourth of July was near at hand and the celebration of it always brought a show of patriotism and community spirit in our small town. The Fourth dawned much like the many days before it, cloudless, more heat, and no prospect of rain.

Weather forecasting in those days amounted to reading the Farmer’s Almanac printed for the whole year by a bunch of guessers. Farmers learned to predict the weather fairly accurately by observing the weather over time. The actions of farm animals and birds gave them subtle warnings.

The afternoon band concert at the park went on as scheduled. The park swimming pool was filled with delighted youngsters while most of the parents watched from bleachers built just for that purpose. Not all could afford the 25 cent admission, but they were privileged to watch. Many of the parents did not swim or could not afford the admission or the price of a bathing suit.

It may seem odd now, but in those times the simple act of watching others was a pleasurable inexpensive pastime. The wife of our local blacksmith would have her husband drive their car mid-afternoon to the shopping block of the village and park it next to the theater so that she could sit in it and visit with the Saturday night shoppers.

In farming communities Saturday was the big shopping day. It was also bath day, the end-of-the-week day when farmers shed their work clothes for something clean and fresh. It was also legend that more children were conceived on Saturday than any other day of the week.

A friend of my parents had a one room summer cabin on a few acres of woods near our place. He lived in town but had the cabin built for summer recreation. It was about 20 feet square with open screening all around and side panels that could be lifted and propped open to provide air and shelter from rain. He had named the cabin The Shack.

It was his custom to invite friends and neighbors to come to the woods for a picnic style meal and to watch the fireworks from a bluff overlooking a creek that bordered the edge of the woods. Twenty five or thirty friends gathered for a hot dog cook-out, some eating in the cabin and some outside where tables had been set up.

About dark we all went to the bluff to watch the fireworks. There was intermittent lightning in distant clouds to the east. “Heat lightning” the farmers called it, not likely to produce rain.

The children took off with sparklers running down the hill toward the creek. They were called back after a time to watch the Roman Candles shoot out from the bluff over the creek. The last displays were sky rockets which split apart into clusters at their zenith with a loud explosion. They would seem to be puny by today’s displays, but they were very exciting at the time.

As the display progressed, so did the lightning and it became a little confusing to separate the fireworks from the natural fireworks. We soon realized that some of the explosions were thunder. The wind picked up and it was decided to retreat back into the woods and the shelter of The Shack.

Rain began falling as the last older adults made to the door. The wind became quite violent and we could hear limbs snapping from the wind. A gust lifted two of the propped up panels and they banged shut against the building. I was very scared by the noise and some of the adults were showing concern.

Eventually the storm subsided and afterward the men took flashlights out to look at the storm damage and check their cars. It was only the next day that we realized how lucky we had been for there were several trees down in the woods. A nearby farmer’s barn was stripped of its shingles. My father said that it must have been the weight of all the people in The Shack that kept it from being blown from its piers. That was my most memorable Fourth of July and the scariest. Even now I am apprehensive when storms come at night and I can’t see what violence may be heading toward me and to prepare for it.

What was your most memorable Fourth of July?