by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 4, 2014.
To understand how this event came about, we need to back up and look at how the Fourth of July was celebrated in earlier times. There were few holidays in New England in the years following the Revolution. Our Puritan founders frowned upon Christmas as a ‘papist’ celebration and substituted the civic holidays of Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July as public events. Elizabeth Dow Leonard , who was born in 1806, recalled, “the Fourth was ushered in with every variety of noise and natural discord the genius of man could devise and the prolific invention of boys could execute.” Celebrations began the evening before with a great bonfire in the town square. This was followed by a night of revelry which included all manner of explosive fun. Most town citizens got very little sleep due to the constant barrage of fire crackers and noise makers which were meant to simulate the great battles fought during the Revolution. On the Fourth itself, a grand procession of dignitaries (usually politicians) and a band marched to the meeting house where speeches were made. “The orator of the day,” wrote Leonard, “was usually some green bag (a nick-name for ‘lawyer’) venturing on his maiden speech, and due allowance was made by his kind neighbors.”
The march and speeches were followed by a grand picnic somewhere in the shade. The day tended to end early, as everyone was still a bit sleep-deprived from the night before.
After the Civil War, a new tradition developed in New England – the parade of ‘Antiques and Horribles.’ Described as a burlesque of local characters, it was held very early in the morning – sometimes before townsfolk were quite ready for the day – and featured men and boys of the town dressed as caricatures of certain occupations and town ‘types.’ As one might expect, lawyers and politicians took the hardest hits, although doctors and any notable citizens could expect to be mocked. The costumes were generally raggedy and unflattering. The Exeter News-Letter noted of the 1870 horribles, “Early in the morning, the Band playing lively airs, escorted a company of young men through the village, all of whom were dressed in the most grotesque style imaginable, the costumes varying according to the taste of the wearer or his perception of the ludicrous.” In 1875, the parade was accompanied by fighting: “the ancient spirit of contention led to one or two street broils in their ranks.”
Whatever the behavior of the ‘ancients and horribles,’ it served as a useful method of relieving some of the political steam during an era when political division was as acute as it is today. Perhaps we should consider reviving the festive mockery of costumed jesters to calm our current political tension.
The 1879 parade seems to have been the apex of the tradition. Awards were presented to both individuals and teams – often the teams included wagons. As always, the event was held early at 6:15 AM in the town square. Led by the Exeter Brass Band and its leader for the day, Mrs. Vandersnoozlewoozle – who looked a great deal like Elbridge Watson - first prize was given to the team of Daniel Colcord “who presented an Oriental conveyance representing the elephant of the ‘greatest show on earth,’ ingeniously contrived with the riders poised a dozen or more feet in the air, a position few would care to occupy on such an occasion.” The prize for ‘worst looking individual’ was won by John Somes, who was dressed as a “bugler mounted on a superb and spirited charger.” Several other entries never got the chance to compete, as the horses involved refused to participate while in full costume.
The practice of the Parade of Ancients and Horribles was waning in 1892 in favor of other, less mean-spirited events. And by this, we mean baseball. But old traditions die hard. When Chester invited Exeter to play a game on the fourth, it needed to be done with ceremony.
Forming up on Court Street at the usual early Fourth of July, the players and the band (dressed in plug hats and long dusters, a caricature of the Ancient and Horrible caricatures) marched through the town and set off by the carriage-load to Chester. Here they gave a concert, had lunch and played a rousing and probably fixed game of baseball. As Henry Shute wrote for the News-Letter, “every play by either nine was made the occasion for a blast of discordant noise from the band improvised by several of Exeter’s delegation which from time to time would circle the field, making perfect Bedlam.” A few bad calls and stolen, or “embezzled” bases later, gave the game narrowly to Exeter. After the band played a few more selections, the party headed back to Exeter arriving, after many stops along the way, in the town square after 10PM. There the party continued into the night, “amid a blaze of bonfires, rockets, Roman candles and red light, the final notes of the band the Gentlemen of Exeter disbanded until July 4, 1893, after the best day’s sport in the history of the organization.”
Photo: The Exeter Brass Band about to start for Chester escorting the Gentlemen of Exeter (baseball team) on July 4th, 1892.