Each year in the early 20th century, Bellingham crowned a Goddess of Liberty for their annual Fourth of July celebration, picking one woman over age 16 to symbolize the spirit of the holiday. People cast ballots for their favorite candidate at participating local stores. In June 1917, the winner was May Abbott. She was crowned July 3 and a dance followed the ceremony. As winner, May also received a special gift: a five-passenger car.
Bellingham went all-out for Independence Day in that era. The town was decorated with bunting, flags, and electric lights for a three-day festival that attracted people from all around Whatcom County. Much of the celebration centered on a parade and carnival.
Bellingham’s main events were sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce. For months before the holiday, the group collected donations from merchants to pay expenses, including fireworks for a public show. In 1905 they spent $1,500 on fireworks to “turn night into day and shed a blaze of glory over everything,” as the Bellingham Herald described the preparations on June 10.
The centerpiece of the celebrations was a community parade through the main streets of town. The parade could be quite large, even extending as long as a mile and a half in 1909. Veterans, business, civic, patriotic, and fraternal groups marched in the parade and sponsored patriotic floats. There was a friendly float competition, too, with cash prizes for categories such as the best business float, best decorated fire apparatus, and best costumed fraternal organization’s float. Patriotic speeches were sometimes held on the steps of the public library.
But many people’s favorite part of the celebration was most likely the carnival. For the days around the holiday, Commercial Street between Holly and Magnolia became “Fun Street.”
So many people came from out of town to visit the carnival that in 1910 the Equal Suffrage Association sponsored a “rest room” for out-of-town women and children to use, providing free childcare and lunch. The year before, the City Mission sponsored one in the Daylight Building.
Another feature of many celebrations was canoe races by the Lummi and other Indigenous groups. Canoe races were a big deal, too. In 1907, a group of Lummi dancers — led by noted Lummi leader Frank Hillaire — performed during the festival on Fun Street.
Additional traditions were the athletic contests and baseball games held at the county fairgrounds. These included horse, bicycle, and foot races (including potato, shoe, and boot races). In later years, car and motorcycle races also took place. Contests were not restricted to land, and in 1914 a boat race took place on Whatcom Creek sponsored by the Booster Club and men in swimsuits competed in a “battle royale” free-for-all wrestling match on a scow.
It seemed like every year the city tried to outdo itself with spectacles. While the city had the usual airplane flights, hot air balloon ascents, and parachute jumps, it also held more unusual events. This included acrobat Lionel Legare ascending his “Mammoth Spiral Tower” on a rubber ball in 1910 and “Daredevil” Dinvalo’s “Slide for Life” from City Hall tower to Champion Street in 1917.
If people sought a quieter Fourth, they could always celebrate on their own. On June 17, 1914, the Herald reprinted party ideas from Woman’s Home Companion magazine. Among their suggestions: a “ship of state” centerpiece “floated” on a mirror, place cards decorated like Liberty Bells or Declaration of Independence scrolls, and small drums as excellent party favors.” For a festive but easy dessert: “Tiny American flags stuck upright in individual forts of vanilla or chocolate ice cream add a patriotic touch.”
Another popular choice was a visit to White City amusement park at Silver Beach. People could picnic, listen to music, and watch fireworks over Lake Whatcom. Others packed a picnic and headed to parks or the countryside for family fun, or went for longer camping trips at nearby areas like Mount Baker.
However they celebrated, firework safety was a constant concern. In 1910, the city passed ordinance No. 1365, which authorized the city fire chief to seize any dangerous fireworks or explosives. This included Roman candles, Catherine wheels, bombs, rockets, and cannon crackers. Despite the law, firecrackers remained such a problem that three years later the Bellingham Herald had to remind readers on May 11, 1913, that “just the little 5-cent packages of red-wrapped crackers which do no worse damage than ruining the nerves temporarily” were allowed.
World War I brought even greater enthusiasm to local Independence Day celebrations. In 1918, a carnival was held in Cornwall Park to benefit the Red Cross. People were invited to bring a picnic. Members of the Girls Honor Guard served hot lunches, candy, and ice cream in a Japanese tea garden and Hawaiian “bower.” They also sold balloons and squawkers.
In all the ways Bellingham residents chose to celebrate the Fourth of July in the early 20th century, there was always one common thread: people from very different walks of life came together to celebrate the birth of their country and the bonds that knit their community together.