Harvard’s Fourth of July: How one man’s vision led to a cherished town celebration

By Carlene Phillips  |  Courtesy of The Harvard Press  |  Friday, June 27, 2014

Take a picturesque New England town, add the celebration of a quintessential American holiday, mix in a clear summer’s day, and you’ll have Harvard on the Fourth of July. A hard-working committee has always been an essential ingredient of the day, but other elements have come and gone over the years. It was the vision of a single individual that gave birth to the celebrations that have marked the holiday in Harvard for the past 50 years.

The earliest documentation of the Fourth of July celebration that is archived at the Historical Society is a printed program from 1906. It shows that the day began with “Sports” at 9:30. For boys under 14 there were an egg race, a 100-yard dash, and a potato race. Men engaged in a running broad jump, a rope-climbing contest, and the 440-yard dash. And for girls? A peanut race.

Old Timey Fun, With a Gender Bias
By 1921 the sports for girls had expanded, though one can still detect the gender bias of the time. While the boys ran a 100-yard dash, the girls ran 50 yards. Boys were deemed capable of managing to run in sacks, girls to race carrying a potato or doughnut, presumably on a spoon. By 1924 the 50 yards still separated the boys and girls running challenge, but now at least boys as well as girls were racing with potatoes.

An exhibition by the fire department at the pond and a baseball game with the Harvard Baseball Association pitted against a nearby town were important parts of the Fourth festivities, as was a concert on the Common featuring a band from Shirley, Lunenburg, or Townsend. Entertainment at Town Hall was offered in the afternoon. In 1906 there was an event for children, and in 1921 the movie “Seven Swans” starring Mary Pickford was on the program.

A newspaper article from 1921 reports that $350 was voted at Town Meeting for the Fourth of July celebration, and four committees were established: general, music, entertainment, and sports. Both the generous amount of money and the number of volunteers suggest that the celebration was of great importance to the town. Based on the records of Ida Harris, longtime board member of the Historical Society, the Fourth celebration remained much the same up to the time of her writing in 1940. However, one can infer that the celebration diminished considerably sometime after that, because the Town Report of 1968 states that a Fourth of July celebration “in the form of a Field Day was inaugurated this year.”

One Man’s Vision and a Rare Warrant
A dramatic change in the way Harvard celebrated the Fourth occurred largely through the vision of the late Gene Marteney. As his wife Arline tells the story, things began with a casual conversation on Memorial Day of 1967. Gene and Arline were talking with then Selectman Mac Henry, commenting on the low attendance at that day’s events and how a similar poor turnout had been true of the previous year’s Fourth of July: only 25 kids had been at the clown show in upper Town Hall and in line for free ice cream at the pond. Gene described how his hometown in Pennsylvania had celebrated the Fourth with a parade of kids with decorated bikes, trikes, and scooters. He lamented that people in Harvard travelled on the Fourth because there was nothing much happening in town. “It’s a shame we don’t have something more,” Arline remembers her husband saying. Those proved to be historic words.

A few days later a police car pulled up at the Marteneys’ home and Constable Charlie Waite got out. As he approached the door, Arline recalls joking to her husband, “What did you do?” (Her children were still too young to have gotten into trouble, she says with a laugh.) Waite stated that he had a summons to deliver and handed over a piece of paper. It was a warrant from the selectmen ordering the Marteneys to start a Fourth of July committee for a town celebration. Jane Petrie and Dorothy Wells joined the Marteneys, and the group set about planning a celebration that would change the way Harvard celebrates the Fourth.

1967: Birth of a New Fourth
All of the events took place on the Common. According to the 1968 Town Report, a 10 a.m. blast from the fire whistle started the day, followed by a line of fire engines, including antique Engine #1, Marteney recalls. A color guard and marching band led a long procession of decorated tricycles, bicycles, and doll carriages followed by the “horribles” in weird costumes and the Girl Scouts from Camp Green Eyrie around the Common. Marteney recalls that the band was the Yankee Doodle Band, composed of students from Bromfield, which had been started by Anne Marie Arnold, who wanted childen to continue their music program after elementary school. She had sewn red vests to outfit the band members. The Yankee Doodle Band was a regular feature of the Fourth celebrations for many years.

The report goes on to say that the Girl Scouts conducted a flag ceremony; judges awarded prizes in several categories of decorated vehicles; games and races were held for different age groups; and a band from St. Benedict’s gave a concert. Marteney describes a firemen’s mini-muster on the corner of the Common across from the Congregational Church. She says Dr. Pittelli was on hand for first aid, and every child had free ice cream from Stone’s on Ayer Road and went home with an American flag.

A Tradition that Kept Growing
The Marteneys remained mainstays of the Fourth of July committee for the next five years. During that time the celebration just kept growing. The very next year the events moved to the grounds of the elementary school because the Common had been crowded. Marteney recalls the start of the now-famous pie-eating contest. Table Top pies were delivered to the Marteneys’ garage for transport to the Common the next day. (Fortunately the Marteney children were too young to open the garage doors.) Arline recalls that there was much discussion over what kind of pies to order. Someone objected to the choice of blueberry because mothers might complain about stains. Another thought there ought to be a variety of flavors. But the decision was to go with all blueberry. And so it has remained.

Arline Marteney, who, with her late husband, Gene, inaugurated the Independence Day traditions treasured by Harvard today.
Arline Marteney, who, with her late husband, Gene, inaugurated the Independence Day traditions treasured by Harvard today.

A chicken barbecue and a square dance in the Town Hall parking lot soon became regular institutions of the Fourth. That first time, barbecued chicken dinners were sold from an old converted school bus parked by the powder house. Marteney recalls having no idea how many chickens to order. She figured 200 ought to be more than enough and went ahead with that large order, knowing she could take leftovers home to freeze. As it turned out, the barbecue sold out in the first half-hour and left many disappointed. After that, the committee upped the order, and there were never any leftovers.

In 1971 decorated floats seem to have been introduced into the parade that started at Town Hall, along with horses and antique cars. A local paper reported that “bikes joined the parade in front of the library, avoiding the downhill grade which caused concern to parents and onlookers.” (One can only imagine!) That year 500 free ice cream cones were given to children under 16. For a few years, Fun Services set up a Moon-Walk and games of chance. The Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and American Field Service ran the games and profited from the proceeds. The still-popular greased pole made an appearance in 1973, with a $5 bill stuck on the top as incentive. By 1975 games and races were held on Bromfield School grounds, and some activities took place at the town beach. At least by 1978 girls were enjoying the same races as boys: running, sack, and wheelbarrow.

Harvard’s Good Luck
By 1973 Gene and Arline Marteney were no longer on the committee, though they did return to help with the Bicentennial. Clearly, it gives Arline pleasure to look back at what Gene, she, and others started and to see the things that Gene so much wanted to share now a part of Harvard’s Fourth of July tradition. She says how much fun it is to see “kids” she knew now bringing their own kids—and even grandkids—to the celebration. Another thing she loves is “seeing how some of what we couldn’t get to happen is now happening.” A good example is fireworks in town, which she says P.J. Johnston deemed too dangerous, even at the beach, and would never allow while he was fire chief.

The town is lucky to have had the vision of Gene Marteney, selectmen who were willing to take a chance, and Fourth of July committees that over the years have continued to work endless hours to give Harvard residents excellent reason to stay right here in Harvard on the Fourth of July.

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