All on the Fourth of July: Fond Memories of an Upstate New York Independence Day

Editor’s Note: This post originally ran in 2015 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.

As all American kids learn in school, Independence Day celebrates July 4, 1776, when the 13 colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. That announcement was made through the Declaration of Independence, one of this country’s greatest and most powerful documents.

There are some modern doubts as to whether it was actually July 4th, or the 2nd, or even another date, but it really doesn’t matter. John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail about the event (which he thought was July 2) and said, “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.”

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Americans took John Adams’ advice and have been celebrating Independence Day ever since.

Early 19th century lithograph. Image via Library of Congress
Early 19th century lithograph. Image via Library of Congress

Ironically, signers Thomas Jefferson — who wrote the Declaration — and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the event. Another Founding Father, James Monroe, died on July 4, 1831. Calvin Coolidge was born on July 4, 1872. All had been presidents of the United States.

Independence Day became a state holiday in Massachusetts in 1781. Other states followed suit. It was declared an unpaid holiday for federal workers in 1870. It wasn’t until 1938 that Independence Day was recognized as a paid federal holiday.

For some in our modern world, the day is celebrated by a day off and a trip to the mall or shopping center for July Fourth mega-sales. Maybe catching a movie. For some, it’s just another work day, while for others, it’s a day at the beach or park.

When I was growing up, Independence Day was huge in our town. Only Christmas Eve came close in town-wide celebrations.

Gilbertsville, N.Y., was a quintessential Norman Rockwell, “Our Town” kind of place — a quiet American village of 400-plus souls.

This small village in Otsego County was founded by Abijah Gilbert in 1787. Old Abijah had been born in England, but was a patriot during the Revolution. After the war, he was given a land grant in recognition of his service, and came upstate to settle on his property in the Butternut Valley, where he started a town.

His descendants are still prominent residents, and many of the other families in town can trace their lineage back to the village’s early settlers. Gilbertsville was a farming community, with many dairy farms nearby as well as other crop farms.

There are many similar towns in Otsego County, but Gilbertsville was always a step above. Perhaps because of the Gilbert family’s wealth and prominence, the town attracted other successful people over the centuries — merchants, farmers and more. We even had a couple of rich Wall Street guys from New York who built summer homes in the late 1800s.

It’s a beautifully situated village, with a main street with stores, and blocks of wonderful old houses — most of them dating from the 1850s up to the very early 20th century. A burbling stream runs through the center of town. Today, the entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places.


Photo by Suzanne Spellen
Photo by Suzanne Spellen

The late Victorian years gave the town its most distinctive buildings, including a Tudor Revival market block of three commercial buildings. The Major’s Inn is a large Victorian Tudor-style hotel built on the site of the original Gilbert homestead. The “major” in mind was a Major Gilbert, of course.

We also had two of the earliest school buildings in the county, a very cute general post office, three Protestant churches, and a central school built during the 1930s with Art Deco details — something I never noticed until returning several years ago. It was built with WPA money during the Depression.

Photo by Doug Kerr
Photo by Doug Kerr

At one point, the town also had a bank on the main street, which was spectacularly robbed in 1905. The robbers blew up the safe with dynamite, and made off with $5,000. That story made the New York Times.

How my family ended up there is another story, but we landed in a town steeped in traditions that had sustained it for more than 165 years, at that point. The Fourth of July celebration was the summer highlight, and a true look at classic mid-20th century American life.

The high school band marched with great fanfare and wool uniforms. There was a color guard, with banners flying and the American flag up front and center, the whole parade headed by the band’s drum majorette, the most envied job in high school.

Behind them was the American Legion Post, which included my father, a veteran of World War II. Then you had the mayor and town council, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, Brownies, 4-H, the Grange, and Sunday school groups from all three churches.

There was aways someone riding in a convertible, waving, and at the end was a tractor pulling a float of some kind. Or we had a fire truck.

In spite of all the marchers, there was always a crowd on hand cheering as the parade marched from the school down the main street and back by a different route.

The parade was great, but that was just the beginning of the day. Every year the volunteer fire department of Gilbertsville held a barbecue. The proceeds went to buying equipment and keeping up the fire house.

The Fourth of July barbecue brought people from miles around. No one in town missed it. It was legendary.

The firemen built cinderblock spits and barbecued hundreds of chickens, which were sandwiched between frames that could turn 30 chicken halves at once.

Photo by Plattertalk

Instead of a tomato-based barbecue sauce, they cooked the chicken using a recipe developed by Bob Baker at the Cornell University Farm Extension in the 1940s. It’s called by many “Cornell Chicken” and it’s an upstate staple of firehouses, church fundraisers and fairs everywhere.

It’s a vinegar-based marinade, also used by Brooks BBQ in Oneonta. If you’ve ever had it, you won’t forget it. It’s the best. (Here’s the recipe.)

They also made tons of potato salad, green salad with Italian dressing, pork and beans, and dinner rolls. There were cake and cookies for sale for dessert. I still remember the menu, although I haven’t been there for the barbecue in close to 40 years.

One of my best friends’ father was a volunteer fireman — he later became the chief — and in my memories of childhood I always picture him among the other firemen, manning the spit, turning racks of chicken and slathering on the sauce.

My mother used to stand in line with us and buy the dinners, which she put in a big picnic basket. My parents and my brother and our dog would ride up the road behind our house to a big meadow that was on the top of the hill. You could see for miles from there, down into the valley and across the hills. It was gorgeous.

Photo by jill111 via pixabay
Photo by jill111 via pixabay

We had a favorite tree up there that we would sit under and have our Fourth of July picnic. Our dog would run around and beg for scraps, and we kids would explore the old foundation of a house that had once stood up there and was now only ruins.

This was our land, but we leased it to a farmer up the road, who planted corn in the field. We ran through the rows of corn and played with our dog while our parents got a chance to relax and talk. Those were the best of times, I think.

There were fireworks that night, set off by the fire department. We could see them from our house. The year I graduated college, I went with friends to the school yard and we lay in the grass one last time, and watched the fireworks explode above us.

Compared to Grucci, they were nothing, but for us, it was pretty impressive. There was always the last burst of multiple explosions that would light up the sky with color.

There were about six of us, and we all knew we would never be doing this again. I was moving to New York City, others were staying. One couple got married, and another person had joined the Army. Another friend, who went to Pratt, would be heading back to Brooklyn.

When I think back on those days, we were so young. The Vietnam war had finally ended a couple of years before, and the world had already changed much more than we knew. Even Gilbertsville was changing.

The school was about to merge with other small schools to create a large regional school, and the individual town identities and age-old rivalries would be gone. Jobs were disappearing, as were young people.

Children who once got married and perhaps moved to a house somewhat near their parents were now establishing trailer homes in their parents’ yards because they couldn’t afford anything else. People were leaving, and never coming back. My brother and I were among them.

There’s a James Taylor song called “On the Fourth of July” that always will remind me of Gilbertsville. I can hear the band, smell the barbecue and see the fireworks whenever I hear it. I remember my parents happy with each other and with life in a small town.

In our younger years, my brother and I didn’t have a care in the world beyond the joys of summer, chasing the dog through the cornfield, and watching fireballs burst into dripping colors in the night from our front porch. This was the dream of America, and all was right with the world on the Fourth of July.

Hit it, James:

“With a tear in your eye for the Fourth of July

For the patriots and the Minute Men

And the things you believe they believed in then

Such as freedom, and freedom’s land

And the kingdom of God and the rights of men”


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