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50 years of the Fourth

Ashland residents look back on July 4th celebrations

AN ANTIQUE FIRE ENGINE was one of many relics from the past that took part in Ashland’s annual Independence Day parade on July 3. (Brendan Berube — Staff) (click for larger version)
July 07, 2010
ASHLAND — Measuring up against the spectacle of years past will be no easy task for this year's Independence Day parade and fireworks display in Ashland, as residents who attended a special presentation last week learned.

On July 2, the eve of the town's 50th consecutive Fourth of July celebration, Historical Society member David Ruell invited a group of residents to reminisce about some of those previous celebrations with a presentation at the Baptist Church that included a display of historic photos and memorabilia.

While Independence Day celebrations in the area were, for the most part, sporadic and informal up until the 1950s, Ruell said (illustrating his point with several vintage newspaper articles re-counting festivities from the 19th and early 20th Century), the Fourth of July parade and fireworks show as Ashland has come to know them began in the early 1960s, under the leadership of the Beach Booster Association.

While the Boosters ran the celebration well into the 1970's, he explained, the organization reached the point by 1978 when it could no longer shoulder the financial burden alone, and appealed to the town for help.

The town, he said, enthusiastically took up the torch, establishing a Fourth of July committee that exists to this day.

The committee's longest-serving member, Ruell said with more than a hint of pride, is his mother, Mary, who acted as the committee's treasurer from the time of its inception in 1978 until her departure in 2009.

Now well into her 90's, he added, she still takes an active role in planning each year's festivities.

Describing the committee as "the core group that makes [everything] possible," Ruell lauded them for the work they do throughout the year to raise funds for the annual celebration — the cost of which has ballooned over the years from $2,439 in 1978 to $17,000 in 2009.

While the solicitation of donations by mail has always been a key part of the committee's fundraising efforts, he explained, they have also garnered the support of local businesses and organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Squam Lakes Association, and the American Legion Auxiliary, and have come up with a wide array of creative fundraisers, including collectable buttons and t-shirts, and special events such as dances, dinners, and raffles.

Their most ambitious fundraiser by far, he said, was a raffle for an 18-foot boat in 1991.

The committee's goal, he explained, has always been to "come out ahead," and bring in enough revenue to cover the cost of the following year's celebration, and they have managed to do so nearly every year, with the exception of 1992, when heavy rains drove attendance down, leaving the committee with a nest egg of only $1,389.

The undisputed centerpiece of Ashland's annual Fourth of July event, Ruell said, is the parade, which has traversed the same route down Main Street and past the ball fields every year, rain or shine, since 1961.

Over the past 50 years, he explained, the parade has brought out the creative side in Ashland's residents, spotlighting colorful floats, patriotic costumes, and musical performances galore.

The parade, he said, has also become an annual showcase for some of the town's more colorful personalities — none more colorful than "Pee Wee" DuGuay, who made his debut as Uncle Sam in 1961, and has become known throughout the area as "Mr. Fourth of July" for his outrageous costumes.

The year 1989 still stands as the "high point" for bands, Ruell said, explaining that no less than eight musical units, ranging from high school marching bands to professional Jazz outfits, marched in the parade that year, along with a record 22 fire trucks from surrounding communities.

The 1989 parade, he added, also saw its fair share of controversy thanks to a decision by the board of selectmen at that time to ban the traditional throwing of candy amid concerns about the safety of children who might venture out into the road to get it.

The selectmen also prohibited a group of marchers who intended to dress as Indians and pelt spectators with water balloons from following through with their plans that year, prompting a group of residents to parody the board with a float depicting five 'dummies' seated at a table beneath a banner praising them, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, as "The Brave Men who Saved Us from the Indians."

Along with the parade, Ruell said, the other big draw associated with Ashland's Fourth of July celebrations has been its fireworks display, widely regarded as one of the best in the state.

"No other town event attracts as many people," he said, explaining that the first fireworks display in 1961 drew in 3,000 spectators — a number that had increased to 10,000 by 1976, and has grown steadily ever since.

Given the number of people involved, Ruell said, "it's kind of remarkable that there's been so little injury."

The only recorded case of injury during a fireworks display, he added, occurred in 1993, when two boys were hit by a rogue rocket that shot out to the side instead of shooting straight up into the air when the container holding it broke apart.

Much of the credit for that impressive safety record, he said, is due to Charlie St. Clair, whose company has handled the detonation of fireworks in Ashland since the mid-1970s.

The question of whether or not this year's festivities measured up to the legendary standard set by previous celebrations may be a matter of debate, but if the crowds that lined Main Street for the parade and returned later in the evening to pack the ball fields in anticipation of the fireworks are any indication, Ashland may very well retain its position as the region's Independence Day mecca for another half century.

Littleton Chmber
Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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