It was a very hot day.
It was a very hot day.
July 4, 1911, in Columbus was the hottest Fourth of July since records had begun to be regularly kept in 1878. In fact, it only missed being the hottest day on record by three-tenths of one degree.
The temperature peaked in the afternoon at 103.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and some said it was even hotter in some of the more densely populated parts of the city.
In a time when air conditioning in its modern form did not exist and when electric fans were a luxury only the affluent could afford, heat like this could be and often was deadly.
William Theis, a 34-year-old barber, walked into a cafe owned by one A. J. Flowers on Russell Street in the Short North. He asked for a glass of water and drank it down. He then dropped dead of heart failure.
Mary Gallagher, 74, of Starr Avenue, distraught over a recent death in the family, died of heat prostration on the morning of the holiday.
And on the afternoon of the Fourth, Edward Daggett, 16, went for a swim in the Scioto River near the downtown bridges with two friends to escape the heat. The river in those days was rather polluted as it passed through the city, but the young man was used to that. What killed him was the cramp that seized him when he hit the cooler water away from the sweltering shore. His drowned body was found the next day.
But with only three deaths, Columbus was more fortunate than some other American cities caught in the same lengthy heat wave. Twenty-seven people died from the heat in Chicago that July 4 and 25 people died in New York. In the major cities of America, more than 134 people died of heat-related causes on Independence Day.
So what exactly did people do on a holiday as warm as this one? Actually, they did quite a bit. With virtually every major business, factory, school and government office closed for the day, many people tried to get out of town and celebrate the Fourth where it might be a bit cooler.
More than 500 people took the train to Buckeye Lake, where the resort town welcomed them for an old-fashioned celebration of fireworks and fun. Others took the train to Glen Mary on the North Side where Camp Mary Orton is located today, and some traveled from Columbus to Greenwood Lake in Delaware for a quiet day in the country.
But most people spent the day close to home.
In Columbus in recent years, we have come to expect large public celebrations like Red White and Boom!, with its small, intimate crowd of 500,000, as well as neighborhood fireworks shows on the Fourth of July.
But such was not the case a century ago. If anything, Columbus was deeply distrustful of fireworks in 1911. For most of the previous generation, fireworks and ordnance had been available to anybody with the money to buy them.
In the years after the Civil War, it was not uncommon for a militia company to fire a salute of rifle and cannon fire on the Fourth with live ammunition. Workers at factories often set off a quarter keg of black powder, making sure to duck to avoid flying pieces of wood. And children had all sorts of fun setting off all sorts of fireworks and blowing off all sorts of fingers, toes and facial features in the process.
By the turn of the century, many people had come to believe that enough was enough. Spearheaded by the formidable lobbying power of the Daughters of the American Revolution, many cities began to try to celebrate what had come to be called a "Safe and Sane" Fourth of July. A safe and sane Fourth was one in which the only fireworks were set off by professionals.
1910 was the first year for a "Safe and Sane" Fourth in the city, and all in all, it went pretty well; 1911 was even better. In retrospect, some people argued that the young people of Columbus were finally coming to their senses and had learned not blow themselves up. Others simply concluded that it was so incredibly hot that no one had any energy to be mischievous.
The real reason was probably somewhere in between. While the safety record of the city with fireworks for July 4 was admirable, a large number of people were out and about, even in the awful heat. Olentangy Park, the largest amusement park in the city, was located along the Olentangy River, north of the Ohio State University campus. On the Fourth of July, admission was free. For most of the day, the place was packed. And at night, many people stayed for fireworks.
Other people spent the day at the Glen Echo Ravine, where the Glen Echo Improvement Association hosted a day of activities and fireworks at night. Others went to a neighborhood celebration hosted by the residents of Ninth Avenue, west of Neil Avenue in the OSU area.
But for people living in and near the downtown, the place to be was Statehouse Square. At 2:30 in the afternoon and again 8:30 in the evening, the Battalion Band from Columbus Barracks (later known as Fort Hayes) entertained the public with a concert on the Square.
Many people, as they still do today, simply celebrated Independence Day at home. To make the day a little more special, dinner was often served on the porches of the houses or lawns nearby.
And after an evening repast, what some would remember more than the fireworks or the lack thereof was the large dish of peach ice cream that was served for dessert. Produced in bulk by the Busy Bee restaurant and café in downtown Columbus, the seasonal treat was a "blending of fine ripe Georgia peaches with rich Jersey cream. A quart delivered to your home for the Fourth of July, 50 cents."
It was a pleasant end to warm and memorable day.