By Ken Hooper
Of all the celebrations in the history of Kern County, Independence Day draws some of the most excitement and attention. Ever since Kern County was created from sections of Tulare and Los Angeles counties in 1866, generations in three centuries here have celebrated it with similar events and activities. Raising the American flag, potato sack races, parades, music, dances, barbecues and fireworks are some of the activities that have bound Kern County generations together.
Our second U.S. president, John Adams, would have approved of the way Kern County celebrated Independence Day in 1876. Adams stated that Independence Day "ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shews [horseshoes], games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more."
The only problem was that he made this statement regarding July 2, not July 4. The Second Continental Congress made its decree for freedom on July 2, 1776, but it was not until two days later when Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence, and the Liberty Bell was sounded in Independence Hall, that the newly minted Americans began to celebrate.
The "Grand Centennial Celebration" in 1876 started with 38 cannons being fired at sunrise, noon and sunset with the echo bouncing off the mountains and across the San Joaquin Valley. Today there are restrictions and prohibited fireworks across Kern County, but in 1876 the list of fireworks for sale at Coon's General Store in Bakersfield included Roman candles, rockets, bombs, colored lights and toy pistols -- enough pyrotechnics to make any Fourth of July a success.
One of the largest Fourth of July celebrations in Kern County's history took place under the shadow of World War I in 1918. The celebration drew 20,000 people into the city, which was more people than actually lived in Bakersfield at that time. The afternoon program consisted of bicycle and horse races, athletic games, motorcycle events and a boxing match between Kid Booker of Bakersfield and Joe McGurk of Fresno.
Thomas Lee Woolwine, Los Angles District Attorney and candidate for governor on the Democratic Party ticket, was the keynote orator on City Hall steps at 8:30 p.m. Afterward, the Bakersfield Band played at a large street dance on Truxtun Avenue, between Chester Avenue and K Street. Later the Bakersfield Police Department described the event as: "Patriotism rules and no arrests were necessary."
The anxiety of our troops fighting in the trenches of France was present, and the city only sighed relief when the July 5, 1918, The Bakersfield Californian stated:
"American Independence day on the American sector passed off with only normal activity. If there were any anticipations the Germans might seize upon thee Fourth of July as a day upon which to strike a blow against the Americans, they did not materialize."
The first Fourth of July celebration in Kern County after the conclusion of World War II could be considered modest by standards set by earlier generations. Tehachapi had the largest celebration when 10,000 people enjoyed a barbecue, rodeo and a parade, while Delano's large Filipino population celebrated American Independence Day in 1946, as they also celebrated the independence of the Philippines from the United States.
The 200th Bicentennial Celebration of America's Independence in 1976 brought a replica of the Liberty Bell to Bakersfield. The Liberty Bell -- at Truxtun Avenue and Chester Avenue -- in front of the Kern County Superior Court building, was one of the two replica Liberty Bells allocated to California.
The setting of the concrete was only a few hours old when it was peeled in the name of freedom for the first time.
The editorial in the Daily Californian in July of 1891 stated: "Slight Thanksgiving Day if you like; work New Year's Day if your business is pressing; slur over Washington's birthday by casting up your accounts and doing odds and ends of business on the quiet, but keep the Fourth of July ... let us celebrate it."
-- Ken Hooper is a Bakersfield High School history teacher, past-president of the Kern County Historical Society and historian for the Kern Veterans Memorial Foundation.