FROM THE ARCHIVES: Celebrating the Fourth

From the Archives | Sandy Main

Henry Rasmussen was just a boy when he attended the Fourth of July celebration in Fairplain Township in 1849 — the first such observance in Montcalm County, he said — and two years later, the first celebration in Greenville. Here is his first-hand account of the events which occurred more than 160 years ago.

“Just fifty-eight years ago I attended the first celebration of the Fourth of July held in Montcalm county. The meeting was held on the farm of Joel Saunders, best known now as the Melvin Miller farm in Fairplain. There was only a small gathering, but it was a jolly, happy lot of people, perhaps not more than 150 in all. A fine dinner was gotten up by Mrs. Saunders, visiting, foot-racing and bail-playing were the pleasures and sports of the day. At night there was a grand ball and many old and young took part.

“The town was not named at that time and was known only as town nine north, of range seven west. It was named Fairplain in the winter of ‘49-’50. But a beautiful fair plain was here and was dotted here and there with cabins of hardy pioneers while patches of virgin soil were broken up that the new settlers might make a living.

“Fairplain town in ‘49 and the fore part of the ‘50s was beautiful and romantic, in those days carpeted with green grass and lovely wild flowers. Wild deer could be seen bounding away in the distance and the wild Indian roamed over the plain, often walking into the pioneer cabin without knocking at the door and asking for something to eat.

“But everything has long since been changed. Fine buildings and beautiful farms all over the plains. Hard work has done wonders.

“Fifty-six years ago today the first celebration was held in Greenville. I was then a small boy of twelve years, working on the farm of T. M. Burley for the sum of $5 a month. My father having a family of ten children, we, all that were old enough, had to work hard to keep the wolf from the door.

“On the morning of the Fourth Mr. Burley said: ‘Henry, do you want to go to the celebration?’ I told him I guessed not;  I could not spare the time, so I went to hoeing beans. I expected to hoe beans all day. I whistled and hoed until about 8 o’clock when my mind changed suddenly about going to the celebration as I heard a sound of drums and the shrill notes of a fife. On looking up I saw three men marching down the road playing martial music. Stopping in front of the house they played two or three pieces.

“Well, I thought I would not hoe any more. So I quit the job and told Mr. Burley I guessed I would go to Greenville to the celebration. Mr. Burley asked me how much money I wanted; I told him I guessed about one shilling would answer. He gave me an old Mexican shilling. Placing this very carefully down in the bottom of my pocket, I was one of the happiest boys on Fairplain.

“Hiram Russell, brother of Judge Russell, of Hart, uncle of George and James Russell, now of Fairplain, a fine horseman, had the honor of taking the band to Greenville to its first Fourth of July celebration. The horses were a fine pair of sorrels, sleek and fat. The band wagon was a heavy lumber wagon with rough, home-made box.

“When we arrived at Greenville Stephen Rossman, who was marshal of the day, met us at the foot of the hill on Clay street. One thing that attracted my boyish attention was the long red sash the marshal wore around his waist and also the blue ribbons floating from either side of the front band of the bridles of the prancing horses.

“We were escorted to the main street where there was marching and the booming of cannon. I think the ‘cannon’ were made out of shot gun barrels. Few fire crackers were used on the occasion. The Declaration of Independence was read.

“Morton Shearer kept the only hotel in the little village, and it was unfinished. James McCreedy kept a small grocery store on the east side of the main street but some years later he built upon the place now known as the McCreedy block. The old red school house stood on the west side of the main street where now is the Avery block.

“Not a very large gathering assembled on that glorious old Fourth, perhaps 200 or 300 people. Quite a number of Indians were scattered about in small groups who seemed to wonder what the white man was trying to do.

“As all earthly pleasures end so that Fourth of July ended, and I returned home a very tired boy with six cents in my pocket left from the old Mexican shilling.”

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