Q: Which town threw Union County's biggest Fourth of July centennial celebration?

A: Union

Union was the center of a historic Fourth of July event in 1876, which marked the nation’s centennial.

The celebration is discussed in detail in “Oregon’s Flamboyant Fourth: 1876” by Doris Huffman. The book, published in 1976, discusses how the United States’ centennial was celebrated in Oregon.

Highlights of the celebration in Union included a grand jubilee ball at the town’s Centennial Hotel, which had just opened.
Organizers of the event stated in an advertisement that their objective was to put on a grand ball that would “eclipse anything of the kind ever given east of the Cascades.”

The ball, conducted after a fireworks show, was attended by 101 people, who each paid $5 for a ticket. So many people came that it was impossible for everyone to be on the dance floor at once, Huffman wrote.

Daytime activities included a parade featuring a float pulled by four horses decorated with flags and flowers. The float carried a woman portraying the Goddess of Liberty who was surrounded by 38 girls cheerfully waving to spectators. The girls represented the 38 states the United States then had.

E. S. McComas of the Mountain Sentinel, a Union newspaper, spoke at the celebration. He discussed patriotism and the many things people had to be thankful for, including a healthy sheep population, Huffman wrote.

“Square yourselves on the sheep question and tell me where you can produce more wool to the square acre of sheep?” McComas said.

McComas had been invited to attend the centennial celebration in Portland. In May, however, he sent a
letter to the Portland Daily Bee stating that he would be unable to attend. He concluded the letter on a
humorous note, Huffman said, stating he hoped to later have his business affairs in order so he could make it to Portland for the 1976 bicentennial celebration.

McComas and everyone attending the July 4, 1876, celebration in Union had a chance to enjoy a cake baked by W. H. Reed. The cake was 32-1/2 inches in diameter, weighed 95 pounds and was cut into 1,000 pieces.

One of the most popular visitors at Union’s centennial celebration was a man known as Professor Jackson who called himself a “corn doctor.” He sold a product he claimed would dissolve corns.

“His absolute promise of permanent cure for corns and bunions was sweet music to ears of miners and ranchers who hankered for solace to their twisted feet,” Huffman wrote.

Huffman wrote that those who were victims of awkwardly fitted boots and shoes hesitated at first but soon were persuaded by Professor Jackson to step forward for treatment. The professor promised his liniment concoction would also cure stiff joints, muscular and sciatic rheumatism and neuralgia.

Several Union County residents did not attend the Union celebration because they were bound for celebrations elsewhere. S.O. French of Cove had left around June 20 for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. He planned to return about Sept. 1.

Herman Geer of Cove was also gone. Geer had left in mid-June to attend the Portland centennial celebration.

The trips made by Geer and French were far from luxurious since Eastern Oregon did not yet have train service. French had the option of traveling to where he could catch a ride on the transcontinental railroad, which had been completed in 1869 and ran from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California, passing through northern Nevada and Utah.

Stagecoach service was available to Union County residents who wanted to travel to Portland. A stagecoach run by John Wells advertised a trip to The Dalles that departed June 26. Once there, celebrants would board a steamship to Portland.

Huffman did not say why the centennial celebration for Union County was conducted in Union. It was a logical choice, though, since Union was then the county seat and the largest town in the Grande Ronde Valley. Union had about 400 residents and La Grande was second with 300.

Q: How did Fourth of July Spring in Wallowa County get its name?

A: The site’s name can be traced to a tree at the site on which was carved “Found fourth of July,’’ according to the book “The Origin of Wallowa County Names” by J. H. Horner.

The location was originally named Hunter Spring, according to Horner. Its namesake then was Charles Hunter, who cleaned out the spring area in 1908 after someone ran cattle through it.

Fourth of July Spring is 15 miles south of Lostine according to oregon.hometownlocator.com.

Q: Did La Grande have any big fireworks shows in the 1930s?

A: Yes.

One of the earliest big fireworks shows we can find documentation of was put on the evening of July 20, 1934. The show was conducted at the conclusion of a two-day celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the railroad in La Grande. The fireworks were described as “elaborate and spectacular” in a story in the July 21, 1934, Observer.

The fireworks commemorated Western history in picturesque fashion with pyrotechnics showing an American Indian on horseback, a covered wagon, a train and a soldier with a bugle. Roman candles, skyrockets, pinwheels and other fireworks were also set off.

Close to 2,500 people watched the show at a stadium where the La Grande Middle School soccer field is today.

According to the July 1934 Observer article, the show was the biggest fireworks show in La Grande since one had been put on several years earlier at an American Legion gathering.

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