Fourth of July History

The City of Willamina Oregon is known for their great celebrations, including the big 4th of July. Beginning in the 1900's, Willamina has always celebrated when America became independent with a traditional parade and fireworks show. Over the years they've incorporated new events like a car show and arm wrestling tournament, all while keeping old traditions alive.

With a town full of history and stories, here is one that comes to mind; Famous Fourth Of The Fifties.

Willamina has had an organized Fourth of July celebration on and off since at least 1909. Most years there has been at least a parade and for decades there has been a fireworks display. The men of the Fire Department began the tradition, giving of their time to purchase, set up and set off the display. They financed the event from their volunteer association. Donations were given from various community clubs, and additional money was gathered by way of setting out donation containers in businesses around town.

There’s a tradition of staking out your place at the High School football field to watch the event from the grandstands, or spread blankets on the field itself. For many years there were organized games for the kids and a concession stand provided while the crowd patiently waited for sunset. Other celebrants meander toward their favorite watching spots shortly before dusk, most anywhere in town would work, but the higher the altitude the better the view. This old-fashioned fireworks display has changed little throughout the years. Each year, after it’s over, it’s proclaimed by the dispersing crowd to be the “biggest show yet.” One year the display really was the biggest, as well as the shortest. It’s remembered as the “Famous Fourth of the Fifties.”

The collection containers for donations had been out for a month in all the downtown businesses. The firemen had collected them the week before, counted the nickels, dimes and occasional dollars, and phoned in an order for as many skyrockets as financing would allow. The fundraising this year was better than the last few years—a sure sign people were working and even had a little to spare at the end of the month.

The day before the 4th, a group of the fire department volunteers made a day of it, taking Ray’s car to Portland to buy the fireworks. They chose just the right assortment to give them the most “bang for the buck,” and loaded them into the back of the sedan where they would stay until the next night. Their work done for the day, the jovial group stopped off at the Hi-Hat on the way home for burgers and beer.

Next day, on the afternoon of the 4th, leaving the wife and kids to clean up after the family picnic, all the available members of the Fire Dept. met, gathered their supplies, dug the mortar holes, readied their protective gear, and awaited dusk at the High School football field.

As the time neared, the crowd began to gather. Blankets and babies in arms, they settled in for the annual festivities, choosing a place on the field where the children could play games, neighbors could visit and the view would be perfect for the coming event. Ray pulled his car onto the field, picked a spot to park where the fireworks could be taken a few at a time from the trunk of his car, but as far away from the crowded field as possible. All was ready.

Finally, the sun set and it was ShowTime. Eager firemen lit the ground display as a signal that the airborne rockets were about to start. Soon the first shell burst overhead with a mighty boom and display of sparks, receiving the expected oohs and aahs from the crowd. Several more, in quick succession, turned the darkness of the summer evening into daylight. Another beauty followed, high into the air with colors streaming back toward the ground.

The next display was more than anyone expected!!

From the outskirts of the field came a huge noise. Showers of red, white and blue flew in all directions, smoke filled the air and a multitude of rockets burst and headed skyward. It was if they had lit a ground display and overhead fireworks all at the same time.

At first there was appreciative applause from the surprised crowd, then the smell of burning rubber, another explosion and firemen rushing from their assigned positions. The applause changed to a strange silence.

When the firefighters extinguished the blaze and the smoke cleared, the remains of Ray’s car appeared, charred and blackened, fireworks still sputtering in all directions, the trunk literally blown away.

Ray got a new car shortly after that 4th of July. The Fire Department found a new, safer way to store and disperse their dangerous cargo, and people in town still talk about the year of the shortest, but brightest, fireworks display Willamina ever had.

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