This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.
Americans have celebrated the Fourth of July in various ways since 1777, the first anniversary of the founding of our country.
In Waco, the first Italian immigrants who arrived in the latter part of the nineteenth century were eager to adopt the American holiday, according to Mary Sendón. During her youth in the early 1900s, she remembers the local Italian families gathering every July Fourth for a picnic at Spring Lake, near present-day Lacy-Lakeview:
"That picnic would last from early morning until—and it was very picturesque. We didn't have cars, and some people had buggies and horses. And those who did have buggies would go and take as many as they could. You know, this was in East Waco. And they would take as many people as they could in their buggies, but most of the people hired moving vans. You know what a moving van is—big ol' truck with side pieces, kind of like a cattle truck. They put benches alongside, and everybody, they'd help all the kids and the women up in there, and they'd sit on the benches there. And we'd drive out to this picnic ground. And they'd cook food out there. They'd barbecue meat. They'd even cook spaghetti in big washtubs out in the open. We didn't have cold drinks so much, but they would make tea and then make lemonade."
She describes some of the recreational activity on the lake during the picnics:
"The teenager type would want to take rides in the boat, you know. And some of the men—some of the younger men would be—get in those boats, and they'd take some of the girls riding. But my—every time they took the girls riding, my grandfather went along. He chaperoned that boat. (laughs)"
Sendón tells about years when the family spent Independence Day at home:
"That was the day that we all got together. My dad would fix things in the house that needed fixing, and we'd do things, you know. And then he'd go down, buy watermelons, and we'd get out in the back and have watermelon, and that was a fun day with him. And my grandfather would be home, too. You know, when the men were in the house there was something different. The atmosphere was different. But I always enjoyed the Fourth. We just had such a big time on the Fourth. My grandfather was born on July the fourth. And when he was sixty years old, (laughs) my mother made him a huge, three-tiered cake, and my sister and I, we bought red, white, and blue candles, these tiny little candles. It took us hours to figure out how to get sixty candles on that cake. And I remember he thought that was the best thing he'd—he said, ‘Who put the candles on the cake?' He thought that was so good."
During WWII, George McDowell of Houston served in the Italian Campaign in a combined British and American headquarters. He recalls July 4, 1943, when they were bivouacked at Lake Bolsena, roughly 100 miles north of Rome:
"The RAF types in our section there, they said, We're going down and celebrate Fourth of July right with you Yanks, see. And there they had Beretta pistols firing up in the air. About that time, General Cannon (vehicle horn honks outside) came out of his trailer and says, ‘What the hell's going on down there?' And I told him, and he says, ‘For God's sake, go down there and stop them because we're right on the front lines of where—' The night fighters that were doing strafe invasions were using Lake Bolsena to check their guns before they kept going, see. ‘And they'll think that we're right there on the front lines.' And so I had to get in my jeep and go down there, said, ‘Boys, the celebration of Fourth of July is over.' (laughs)"
Whether with picnics, quality time with family, fireworks, or other customs, Independence Day offers us the chance to reflect on what it means to be an American.
Living Stories is heard every Tuesday on 103 point 3 FM, Waco's NPR. For full transcripts of the interviews featured in this segment, or for more information about the Institute for Oral History, visit baylor.edu/livingstories.
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