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A comprehensive history of Franklin’s Fourth of July Celebration and a plea for 2023

Franklin Main Street 2022

For as far back as local newspaper archives can be found, Macon County has continuously hosted a patriotic Fourth of July celebration, bringing together the community and putting Macon County on the map as a summer tourist destination. 

Online internet archives from the Franklin Press features a  June 24, 1903 newspaper advertisement for a “Celebration and Picnic” on the Fourth of July. The event was held on the battleground of Sugartown, a battle fought in September of 1780. The battle was fought under General Pickens and resulted in more than 700 lives lost. Those lost during the battle, which sits five miles East of Franklin, are buried there. The 1903 Fourth of July picnic featured a collection to raise money to erect grave markers for those who died. The organizing Committee included W.R. Bulging, J.W. Nash, and C.L. Sellers. 

By 1906 the Fourth of July festivities turned more celebratory and featured a Play at the Courthouse. Proceeds from the theatrical event benefited the library. 1906 is the first time local newspapers were found to report fireworks being used in Macon County for the celebration. 

Over the next 116 years, from 1906 until 2022, Macon County’s Fourth of July Celebration changed very little. While economic markers of the times, headlines of war and local men being selected from the draft might have changed the tone of the celebration, but one thing that remained consistent was the dedication Maconians showed in celebrating the anniversary of Independence Day each year. 

Advertisement that was ran in the Franklin Press in June 1951 for Fourth of July events.

Who organized Franklin’s Fourth of July Celebration?

Even the 1903 Fourth of July Celebration was credited to a committee of local men — presumably businessmen of the time in Franklin. That same structure dominates historical accounts of who organized, supported, or really funded the town’s annual events. In 1924 the organizing group was identified as a “committee of local businessmen,” a moniker used frequently to describe both the Fourth of July celebration organizers or those who provided prizes and sponsorships. 

While “businessmen” were historically associated with the holiday, local veteran organizations have also shared in the nearly 120 year history of the Fourth. The American Legion is credited with planning the “Greatest Celebration in the History of Franklin” in 1925, which according to The Franklin Press, drew crowds of 5,000 to 6,000, with only three arrests for disorderly conduct. Veteran groups and businessmen worked together over the next decade to host Fourth of July celebration. 

In 1935 the local Boy Scout troop took on the task of organizing the festivities, sharing in the responsibility of coordinating events for all ages. In 1938 the town’s Independence Day holiday was sponsored by the Franklin Fire Department, with funding from local businessmen to ensure the event was worthwhile for visitors and residents alike. 

The 1940 celebration was made possible through a committee tasked specifically with planning the holiday. Members included W.C. Newton, Ray Swanson, and T.W. Angel. That committee remained in charge of the event until 1944— when the ongoing war called for a somber celebration that was quiet and reserved. 

Eager to bring back the celebration for the 170th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the American Legion, joined by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) worked together to once again host a headlining celebration in 1946. Local veterans organizations continued to host the annual celebration through 1950. 

The 1951 Fourth of July event was planned by a committee formed within the Chamber of Commerce and featured special programs to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The committee was a mix of local businessmen and civic organizations.

Following the 1951 year, the annual events began being organized by a group of civic organizations working together. In 1953, the Jaycees is first mentioned as being involved in the Fourth of July, an important date as the Jaycees would be responsible for creating the framework of the events the majority of Macon County know today. The Jaycees, a leadership training and civic organization of people between 18 and 40 years old, were responsible for the annual Independence Day events in Macon County for nearly 50 years, from 1953 until 1999 when the Franklin Chamber of Commerce took over. 

The Franklin Chamber of Commerce first became involved as a partner with the Jaycees, with the two groups working together in 1997 and 1998 before the local chapter of the Jaycees disbanded and the Franklin Chamber of Commerce became the sole organizer of the event.

Over the next 20 years, the Franklin Chamber of Commerce continued the Fourth of July tradition in Macon County. When the COVID19 pandemic hit the United States, the typical events and festivities associated with the holiday were not possible due to safety concerns, leading the Chamber to make the difficult decision to cancel the annual event. Wanting to see some sort of celebration, and understanding the increased need to feel a bit of normalcy, in the summer of 2020, the town of Franklin decided to host “Fireworks over Franklin” for the first time. 

While Franklin had began hosting its own celebration on Main Street in 2010, 2020 marked the first year the town took over the responsibility of the fireworks from the Chamber. After the first event, and the positive feedback the town received, they decided to take over Fourth of July events and activities for the town moving forward, bringing us to 2022 when we just wrapped up the town’s third year hosting the holiday activities. 

What did the Fourth of July Celebration look like?

Parades, baseball, beauty pageants… and greased pigs? Yup, those are the mainstays in Macon County’s Fourth of July events history, as constant as the annual fireworks display and in some years, even more guaranteed. 

The 1924 celebration kicked off with a parade down Main Street — that year the first prize float was awarded $10 in gold. Holiday contests followed shortly after the parade with two iconic traditions — chasing a greased pig and climbing the greased pole — regardless of who hosted the holiday events in Franklin’s history, these two unique events were held pretty routinely for decades. 

1925 was the first year that a Fourth of July baseball game was reported in online archives available from The Franklin Press. Franklin won the baseball game against Dillard, beginning a tradition of America’s favorite pastime that was held virtually every Fourth of July celebration over the next 35 years. 

The tradition of kicking off the patriotic celebration with a parade on Main Street was brought back in 2010 when town leaders first brought the celebration back to Main Street, but parades have long sense been a staple in the Macon County holiday tradition. The 1924th celebration began with a parade, and parades were held on Main Street in conjunction with the holidays until the 1960s when the majority of the festivities were moved to the Macon County Recreation Park when the Jaycees began hosting the “Jaycee Fun Day.” 

TheMacon County News front page in June 2000 encouraging all to participate in the annual parade.

Parades were once again added to the festivities in 1997 as a way to encourage “old fashioned patriotism” and often coincided with the annual visit from the Wagon Train to town. The tradition of a parade ended in 2001 and was not constant again until the town brought it back to Main Street in 2010. 

Over the years special events such as plays by local theater troops, concerts and music by various performers, even patriotic speeches by elected officials followed by public broadcasts by national Presidential addresses were all part of the Fourth of July celebrations. Some events were more special than others, like the 1925 flyover by Mr Becler Belvins, who flew his plane over Main Street, or how in 1948 so many people visited Macon County for the holiday that Frank Murray, the then Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce had to enlist the help of Tom Phillips the night policeman to knock on the doors of homeowners around town after midnight to ask them to board tourists so none had to sleep in their automobiles. That year was deemed the “biggest tourist weekend in the town’s history.” The special event of 1949 was the boxing bouts that took place inside the courthouse and for most of the early 50s, residents were thrilled for the annual Square Dance held in the hanger of the airport and hosted by the VFW. 

Fireworks were of course virtually always on the program lineup with the earliest being reported in 1906. Newspaper archives over the last century told about businesses chipping in to pay for the fireworks — with the goal of making it “worth the trip to see them.” Early reports note fireworks, but don’t give specifics as to where they occurred, however the Franklin of the 1920s was pretty confined to a mile circle around the courthouse, limiting where the show could have been held. In 1925 it was reported that the fireworks were held “on the hill near the schoolhouse.” In 1925 Franklin would have had a school building located between the present Franklin high School and the gym so one can assume the fireworks would have been shot off in that area. In 1935, the year the Boy Scouts organized the festivities, the fireworks were shot off “on the hill by the high school” which would have been in the same area as 1925. 

The Macon County News from 1986 recounts the celebration hosted by the Jaycees at the Macon County Recreation Park, which included fireworks from the field below the pool. The exact year the fireworks moved from the area around Franklin High School to the recreation park is not clear, as though 1960, newspaper archives do not mention a fireworks display as part of the annual celebrations. 

The fireworks continued to be held at the recreation park along the Georgia Road each year until 2020 when they moved to downtown Franklin. The Town of Franklin has shot the fireworks off from the Whitmire Property off the Highlands Road for the last three years. 

The front page of the 1960 Franklin press, corning Miss 4th of July in Franklin.

Arguably more consistent in Franklin’s Fourth of July history than fireworks are beauty pageants. First reported consistently beginning in 1951 when an “old-fashioned bathing beauty” pageant was held in celebration of the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, patriotic beauty pageants were held every year in connection to holiday events. By 1954 the events reportedly lead to the crowning of the “Queen of the Fourth” and 1956 the event decided “Miss 4th of July.” The Miss 4th of July contests continued into1960, when competition was so serious, visiting judges from Jackson County were brought in to ensure the contest was fair. The holiday beauty pageant has changed over the years and now, under the organization of the town of Franklin, the contest is for kids and is deemed the “Little Miss & Mr. Firecracker pageant. I am proud to say that my son, Turner, was the 2018 winner of the pageant! 

From the 1920s when businessmen organized the celebrations, to the 1940s when veteran organizations oversaw festivities, to the 1950s when the Jaycees spearheaded events, and during the reign of oversight by the Franklin Chamber of Commerce, visitors and tourists alike could count on a dozen of field events and contests throughout the holiday celebrations. From sack races to tug-of-war, from horseshoes to watermelon eating contests, to “largest family” to best-dressed pet, to egg rolls and foot races, Fourth of July has always fostered a community centered, family-focused, “together” celebration. 

The annual contests have always been a big draw for the events, not only because of the friendly competition they encouraged but because it brought people together. It got them out of the house, away from televisions, or video games, and a day for the entire county to spend together, young and old, neighbor or stranger, business owner or customer, everyone together. The event was also unique in how it was the one celebration in Macon County that truly involved everyone – individuals, churches, civic groups, businesses, local government — all entities contributing to make the event spectacular. 

The Fourth of July event we know today

The Macon County News Fouth of July advertisement in 2008

On July 4th, 2022, the town of Franklin organized an incredible morning of activities in downtown Franklin. The event kicked off with the annual parade — a parade that has been following the same route for decades with the same concept — the parade would be open to anyone who wanted to participate with everyone marching up Main Street in their most patriotic gear. Ending on Main Street, the parade kick-started the Little Miss & Mr. Firecracker contest that was followed by a Patriotic Pet contest that was both cute — and terrifying if you are not a fan of snakes! There was fresh watermelon being sliced and diced, ice cream from Sweet Caroline’s Ice Cream Truck and snow cones too. The event also partnered with civic and community groups, like the Rotary Club of Franklin for free give-aways at the Summer Safety Station and Franklin Fire Department with goodies as well. Then, to finish off the festivities, there was live music on the town Gazebo to entertain a crowd of all ages — all while Franklin merchants opened their doors — and their air conditioners to shoppers. Franklin finished the Fourth of July celebration Friday night with a firework show high above the mountains and set to music played over the radio. All-in-all, the event cost the town of Franklin about $15,000, $10,000 of which was spent for the firework display. 

While this marks the third year Franklin has hosted the fireworks, it continues more than a decade of Franklin’s Main Street playing host to the parade, music on the square, and other activities taking place before noon to celebrate the Fourth of July. Prior to COVID19, after the events wrapped up on Main Street, afternoon events hosted by the Franklin Chamber of Commerce would begin after lunch. From horseshoe tournaments to corn hole, to inflatables and more, the Chamber of Commerce took over the Jaycees Fun Day in the park in 1999 and continued it for 20 years. 

The Macon County Nes ad for Fourth of July in 2002. This marked the 5th year anniversary of the Franklin Chamber of Commerce taking the lead of the day’s events.

During that 20 years, the number of volunteers available to help organize the event decreased year after year, the cost to host the event increased year after year, and the contributions from the general public also began to decline. According to the Chamber of Commerce, after state laws and regulations brought many changes to the annual event in 2019, the Chamber was at a crossroads to decide what to do next. With the town willing to take on the event, which was about to see a significant increase in cost associated with insurance and certifications for the fireworks, the Chamber board decided to let the town take over the event. 

What started 20 years ago as an annual event with more than a dozen events and activities, all individually sponsored by a different business, civic organization, or church, slowly started to become more and more the responsibility of the Chamber and its network of volunteers. The annual event, which cost upwards of $25,000 to host, received funding from both Macon County and the town of Franklin, but without the business sponsors once available, both the manpower and the funding became an unsustainable issue. 

Even dating back to the 1920s, the annual Fourth of July celebration was an “all-hands-on-deck” event for Macon County, with everyone contributing to its success. Over the years, that sense of community ownership has vanished for one reason or another — however I don’t think it was intentional. 

And because I believe the Fourth of July Celebration that we know and love became a casualty of our daily lives become busier and busier and time taking a toll on us all — I am proposing changing that for 2023. I am officially asking for your help to bring back a Fourth of July event in Macon County that will make headlines— like it did for decades in our county’s history. I want to bring back tradition. I want to bring back community. And most importantly I want to give our children something that they will never forget. So for 2023, I am asking for “all hands on deck” to form a Fourth of July Committee just like they did in the event’s biggest, most successful years and for our community to once again take ownership in this holiday. 

If you are interested in volunteering — shoot me an email at editor@thesouthernscoopnews.com.

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