Continental Divides

The Flathead’s Old-Fashioned Fourth

There’s no better place to observe the Fourth of July

By John McCaslin

And in the blink of an eye the Fourth of July is upon us. Another fleeting summer where people are overheard wondering where June went.

And as with past Independence Day celebrations, the nation’s 248th birthday will be observed in the Flathead Valley in traditional July 4thfashion.

“Small-town,” so to speak.

From the time-honored Fourth of July parades in Kalispell and Bigfork, to the Old Fashioned Ice Cream Social on the grounds of historic Conrad Mansion (free ice cream for the licking, folks), capped off with spectacular fireworks above Whitefish Lake and virtually every other community in this county, there’s no better place to observe the Fourth.

One proud American who eloquated fondly of such “simpler” July 4th celebrations was the late-Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the longest serving U.S. senator in history whose grasp of American history was unsurpassed on Capitol Hill.

I’ve never forgotten the one Fourth of July when Byrd ruffled more than a few feathers by acknowledging the Independence Day pageantry in the nation’s capital was as impressive as any in the country.

“But in all honesty I must admit that it is not my cup of tea,” he quickly added. “No, I prefer … smaller celebrations back in the hills and hollows and rural towns.”

Like in the Flathead Valley.

“The high school band would don its very best regalia, shine up its buttons, and march down the dusty small streets lined with moms and dads. Children perched atop shoulders so they could see and point fingers as the parade went by. The baton twirlers would twirl and step high. Young boys and girls would run alongside just to be part of the spectacle,” the senator reminisced.

“Meanwhile, ice cream cones would drip, drip in the sultry heat, [and] somewhere nearby, perhaps inside a church basement, cakes, pies, fried chicken, potato salad, coleslaw, baked beans and hot barbecue, and a cold Coca-Cola awaited all who felt inclined to take part in the holiday feast. And those were the days when a Coca-Cola really tasted unique. Coca-Cola doesn’t taste today like it did during the days of those old 5-cent Coca-Colas of my boyhood.

“There was pride and happiness on every face,” he described. “Then there was respectful silence when the Stars and Stripes … carried proudly by an Eagle Scout … were hoisted high. And we all thanked God that we were free.”

He paid respect to a heroic group of men and women, the “volunteer firemen” who once again on this Fourth will steer their shiny red fire trucks, sirens blaring, down Main Street and Electric Avenue.

And lest the senator forget the “local politicians — and beauty queens — [perched on] the open tops of mirror-polished convertibles.”

“After the parades,” he continued, “long tables will be laid under the old trees shading the yard; it may be a church yard, there may be a cemetery near by. Many hands will share in the labor of cooking, and the fragrance of meat grilling will blend with the sweet aroma of homemade pies, cakes. Children with watermelon juice dribbling down their chins will run past grandparents in lawn chairs, waving their sparklers at the darkening sky, as the dogs bark and give chase.

“When finally the fireflies give way to the stars, fathers will set up the Roman candles, fountains and noisemakers, and a spectacular reprise of the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” Byrd proclaimed, his exuberance on the Senate floor reaching a crescendo. “There is no better nation on earth, no nation more blessed, than this one.”

Let’s all try our best to keep it that way.

John McCaslin is a longtime journalist and author.