“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” -John Adams, in a letter to Abigail Adams.
Now, you might notice that Adams refers to July 2nd instead of July 4th. He’s talking about that day’s vote by the Second Continental Congress to formally split from Great Britain. The next two days were spent editing Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, and independence was formally declared on July 4th, 1776.
Even though we ended up going with a different date, we did at least take the rest of Adams’ advice to heart. I can’t tell you about a single town’s July 4th celebration that doesn’t include a parade, fireworks, music, and other festivities. But let me tell you, our celebrations aren’t anything compared to the ones thrown in the 1800s! Everyone thinks of the Victorian era as sort of prim and proper, but they knew how to party.
Imagine Main Street in Point Pleasant, Front Street in Hartford, and Routes 2 and 62 the entire length of the county lined with American flags and nearly every building decorated with red, white, and blue bunting. Portraits of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and other patriots adorn public buildings. Celebrations begin at 5 a.m. with cannon fire and continue nearly to sunset, including everything from a parade that marches on for nearly 4 miles, multiple public speakers and dignitaries, and public gatherings hosted by fraternal organizations too numerous to count.
In the public speakers, it was more than just a day for celebration, food, and drink. July 4th was a day to remember our revolutionary history, a history in which Mason County played quite a large part for what was, at the time, such a remote area.
For the nation’s 100th anniversary in 1876, future Congressman Charles E. Hogg spoke to our history. Of course, George Washington produced one of the first surveys of our county in 1770. Colonel Lewis (later General Lewis) led the Virginians to victory in 1774, securing the Valley just in time for the coming revolution. Matthew Arbuckle commanded Fort Randolph in the opening years of the war, and unfortunately could not prevent Cornstalk’s murder, an act that finally drove the Native Americans to ally with the British. The first generation to settle our county was comprised almost entirely of Revolutionary War veterans. Thomas Lewis, Luman Gibbs, William Clendinen, the Roush brothers, Leonard Cooper, George Eastham, John Hereford, and so many more.
Today, that history is forgotten by so many. Soldiers of the Revolution lie in long lost cemeteries, some lost forever because of time and destruction. Of their homes, maybe one or two still stand. Of their contributions to our county after their service, almost nothing remains.
These were the people that built Point Pleasant (the Bend Area towns were all from the next generation). Between 1790 and 1860, they built a Main Street to rival most others in the Valley, complete with businesses to meet every need and one thing that very few towns in western Virginia had, a free school. Today, only one of those commercial buildings and the school still stand, and it’s very likely that neither will stand for much longer.
Once those are gone, as most of their graves are lost or their headstones crumbling, Mason County will have lost every true connection to its revolutionary history except for a few pieces of paper.
As a closing thought, I often hear complaints that my generation (Millennial, Gen Z, and so on) has forgotten this country’s history and forgotten the Founding Fathers. If we have, it is because generations older than ours have allowed that connection to be cut. We are a long ways from Mount Vernon and Monticello, and year after year we lose our local connections that era. If you want your children, your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren to remember the Founding Fathers and once again give some meaning to July 4th, then something needs to change.
Information from the National Park Service and Weekly Register.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.