Celebrating the Fourth of July

The following excerpt was taken from a booklet about West Beach Corp. published in 2007 & 2008, written by Ed Brown of Beverly Farms and Farms native the late Frank Dipaolo.

No introspective about West Beach and the West Beach Corporation could be complete without mentioning the important role the beach has played for more than a century of Beverly Farms Fourth of July celebrations. There is a public misconception that the beach sponsors the holiday events, including the fireworks display that traditionally caps off the night of the Fourth. Actually, the beach is simply the locale. All holiday activities are organized and paid for by the volunteer Farms/Prides Fourth of July Committee, which makes the plans and raises the funds to cover all the expenses that seem to get higher every year. But because the stretch of the beach and the bathhouse facilities is the natural center of attraction for the day, and the only place in the Farms where a safe fireworks display is possible, the Corporation has for over 100 years made its premises available to the committee.

The day is intended for Beverly Farms residents, West Beach subscribers and their families, but traditionally the property becomes host to non-members, especially for the fireworks. That show also attracts a fleet of boat-owners who moor their craft between the beach and Misery Island to enjoy an aerial display that is considered one of the best in the area. When possible, committee members take a boat out to collect contributions — sometimes given freely and sometimes refused.

For many years the public was welcome for the fireworks. Later, attempts were made to limit admission to Farms residents who had purchased tickets. In recent years, as expenses continued to rise, admission tickets have been sold to anyone willing to pay, but parking at the beach is still restricted to those with stickers. It has become standard for the police to shut down all streets in the area at 7 p.m. on the Fourth to improve public safety.

A “traditional” Fourth in the Farms starts out with the Horribles Parade which forms up on Oak Street near the railroad station and steps off at 8 a.m. for Henry J. Dix Park (first known as the Beverly Farms Playground and renamed in 1944 for a Farms Marine who gave his life for his country in World War II). At times over the years a ball game has followed at the park. Then in the afternoon the action shifts to West Beach, the scene of games and races for children as well as family picnics. A band concert on the beach veranda in the early evening is then followed by the fireworks.

But despite the perception of tradition, there have been years when things were different. World Wars I and II put a decided damper on the celebration. And over the last 60 years there have been at least two times when there were no fireworks — once for reasons not remembered (money, perhaps) and once when concerns over liability insurance for the West Beach Corporation after an incident the year before led to cancellation.

The fireworks got their start at the beginning of the 20th century with the construction of the West Beach pier. That structure made it possible for aerial displays to be shot off, and the “set  pieces,” colorful pinwheels, and ‘waterfalls’ attached to wooden frames, to be erected. The loss of the pier changed things dramatically. Now the only choice is for the Fourth of July Committee to rent a barge from which the aerial display (no more set pieces) can be fired off.

1898 – The holiday on the North Shore was marred by the “Surf City” disaster. While on a pleasure cruise in the Salem-Beverly harbor, the steam boat foundered in a sudden squall. Eight persons drowned, but many other passengers and crew members were rescued through the heroism of residents who rushed to the scene aboard anything that could float.  

In Beverly Farms, a “great and glorious Fourth” was celebrated with West Beach, which had by then evolved into a recreation spot, as the center. People brought picnic lunches to the seashore, and it was, in the words of the Beverly Times  reporter, “one big family party.” In the evening, the “long row of bathhouses” (those were, of course, the beach shacks erected by the Publicover Bros.) were decorated with lanterns. In what would be a preview of fireworks displays to come, at dusk the picnickers set off firecrackers they had brought for the occasion, and topped everything off by sending up colored lights on balloons.

1908 – The newspaper commented on a “splendid program at the Farms.” The Horribles Parade had yet to come into existence, but the day’s activities started with two baseball games at “Marshall’s Field,” one for the boys at 8:30 a.m., another for the men an hour later. Then everything moved to West Beach. The afternoon’s highlight was a race, but not for kids. It was a one-half mile horse race along both the Corporation and private stretches of sand. Anybody who owned a horse they considered fast could enter, with all to carry 143 pounds. (We don’t know who won.) There was of course no pavilion veranda yet, but early in the evening the Rowley Brass Band found space to entertain everyone with a concert of patriotic and marching music. This was followed by a “grand illumination” of the beach, a soon to be traditional line of ignited railroad flares. And now that the pier had been in place for several years, a fireworks display had become the awaited conclusion of the day’s events. Edwin F. Campbell was chairman of the Fourth of July Committee that year.

1918 – With the world at war and many of the community’s younger residents either fighting in France or training at stateside military camps, the Beverly Farms correspondent for the Times reported that the “Fourth passed off very quietly. No sports or amusements of any kind were scheduled.” The only public activity held to mark Independence Day was a concert by the United States Machinery Co. Band, which performed between 2 and 3 p.m. on the veranda of the West Beach pavilion, built seven years before.

1928 – That year featured a more traditional celebration of the holiday, although there still was no mention of a parade. A baseball game in the morning was something of a pickup affair – married men vs. single men. In the afternoon at West Beach there were children’s games along with a special treat, a Punch and Judy puppet show. The Beverly Cadet Band performed in the afternoon, and following a refreshment break the band members took to the pavillion again for an evening concert to put the crowd in the mood for a “fine display” of fireworks. Beverly had its own fireworks display, at Lyons Park/Dane Street Beach.

1938 – With the Fourth on a Monday, the Farms turned the holiday weekend into a three-day celebration. On Saturday evening at the library hall, children were treated to free “talkies” (still the term for sound motion pictures which had been around for a decade or so, and probably in this case featured cartoons). Sunday afternoon at the Farms Park (now Dix Park) there was both a baseball game between the Beverly Farms Athletic Club and the Boston & Maine Railroad Athletic Club, and a tennis tournament on the park’s recently constructed courts. On the holiday morning, the now traditional Horribles Parade started at 8 a.m. from the depot. The Farms A.C. took the field for the second time in as many days to play the 400 Club. Then it was off to West Beach for everyone, with a band concert at 1:30, sports and games for boys and girls starting at 2, with another concert at 7 topped off by the “illumination” at 9 and of course the fireworks.

World War II would soon intervene, and from 1942-45 the needs of the military meant that no gunpowder was available for fireworks. With everyone’s eyes on foreign battle scenes and thoughts on residents far from home, there was little appetite for celebration. Rationing, especially of gasoline, kept everybody close to home. In 1944, for example, no parade or much of anything else was planned on what would be a “quiet Fourth.” However, the West Beach Corporation did what it could to  brighten the holiday, throwing open its gates to the general public of Beverly and presenting a musical program of patriotic tunes on the beach pavillion in the afternoon.

1948 – Just 11 days before the disastrous fire, the Farms Fourth of July celebrants would make use of their much loved Hardy & Day-built beach pavilion for the last time. After the Horribles Parade and a regular Beverly Twi-League ball game at Dix Park between the Cadigan Post team of Beverly Farms and the Beverly Youth Association club, also known as the Beverly Town Team (won by the Farms, 4-0), action as usual shifted to West Beach for children’s races and a pair of band concerts, at 2 and 7. The fireworks that night were said to have cost $1,000. Arthur Sheehan was the committee chairman.

1958 – The Horribles Parade was held as usual, but instead of a baseball game, a drum corps exhibition provided the post-parade entertainment. Again, band concerts on the new bathhouse veranda were held at 1 and 7, with fireworks at 9. The Ryal Side neighborhood held its own fireworks show at Obear Park. The West Beach work crew watched the Farms display from the roof of the new bathhouse.

1968 – This was a strange holiday in some ways. A headline in the Times blared: “Farms Fourth Not Like Old Days.” The Horribles Parade was said to have been a bust, with only five floats entered instead of the usual 15 or 20, and the post parade crowd at Dix Park was smaller than usual. The baseball game was a Little League contest. At West Beach, the Huntsmen Band of Hamilton played a single concert in the afternoon, and the games featured the running of the Joseph M. Donovan Memorial “marathon” along the wet sand to Prides and back. Evening activities at West Beach were restricted to a “family entertainment” at 6:30, featuring an appearance by Boston children’s television personality Rex Trailer. There was no mention of fireworks that year, which may have contributed to the “not like old days” spirit.

1978 – Fireworks were at the heart of the day’s events at West Beach, but with a big difference. Destruction of the pier in the February 6-7 blizzard meant that the only way to have a display at the beach was for the Fourth of July Committee to rent a barge for use of the fireworks company crew and moor it off shore. This greatly added to the expense of the show, but the committee decided it was worth it.

Comments about years after 1978 will be added at a future date.