Looking Back: Independence Day, 1915

Local History
KC Times flag raising
The KC Times' illustration of the July 5, 1915, flag raising in Swope Park. (LG)

In 1915 the Fourth of July fell on a Sunday, and for this reason that year’s Independence Day celebrations were extended over a two day period, Sunday the fourth and Monday the fifth. The largest of the events on either day was a massive community celebration in Swope Park on Monday, when an estimated 90,000 people turned out to commemorate the founding of the United States.

On the Fourth itself there were a number of activities all over the city—golf at Swope Park, a baseball game at Federal League Park between the Kansas City Packers and St. Louis, a circus at 17th and Indiana, river cruises, balloon ascensions, and segregated events at Lincoln Electric Park.

And, at 3 pm, in Central High School, the “Americanization Exercises.”

I was in the fifth grade the year that the Beatles started having number one hits on the American charts, so you know that my memory of the authorities telling us to have a “Safe and Sane” Fourth of July goes back a fair distance in time. When I started looking at the newspapers for that first week in July of 1915, I saw reports about how the war in Europe was going, what we now call World War I. I read about the deaths of the president of Mexico and the Sultan of Turkey. I read about the divorce of two Hollywood stars.

I also read a warning to have a “Safe and Sane” Fourth of July.

The evening of the July 4, 1915, had the Americanization Day celebration at Central High School. Kansas City was one of many communities across the country that had such an observation. The newspaper accounts make it easy to infer that Kansas City may have been at the forefront of those cities. The Times, both the one in Kansas City and the one in New York, carried stories about President Wilson sending a letter to Frank Trumbull, who chaired the committee in Kansas City.

Kansas City’s program included speeches by Mayor Jost, Judges Latshaw and VanValkenburg, and Senator James A. Reed, as well as a showing of a motion picture (silent, of course) by Thomas Edison (yes, the guy with the light bulb) called The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

Over 500 new American citizens, representing 19 different nationalities, attended, and the Kansas City Public Library had prepared a list of books (with the title “Helps to Citizenship”) that it made available to those attending. The KC Times said that the “books are in English, German, Italian and Yiddish."

The next day was the big celebration in Swope Park.

Swope Park was named in honor of Colonel Thomas Swope, who had bought a large farm and donated the over 1300 acres to the city for a park. Some people thought that the land was too far away from the city, but the city did not turn down the list.

Col. Swope had died six years earlier at his sister-in-law’s house in Independence under questionable circumstances. His niece was married to Dr. B. Clark Hyde (much to the dismay of her mother) who attended Col. Swope, who had come to suffer regularly from stomach problems. The Colonel’s health deteriorated suddenly in the fall of 1909, as did the health of several people in the Independence household.

When he died, Mrs. Swope, among others, suspected that her son-n-law may have had a hand in the death. The doctor was arrested and would, eventually, sit through four trials (five if you count his eventual divorce). His mother-in-law helped defray the cost of some of those trials. Judge Latshaw had presided over the first trial, and Senator Reed (before he was Senator Reed) had been hired by the family to be the prosecutor. On July 3 of 1915, Mrs. Swope announced that she would no longer fund the trials.

The following July 5 was a beautiful day—light blue sky, temperatures in the mid 70s. Jacob L. Loose, who would later have a park named after him, had donated a new flag mast for Swope Park which had its inaugural use that Monday. The concrete had not yet been set, but guy lines held the 200 foot flagstaff in place. Each of the four sides of the marble base had a bronze plaque giving, variously, Loose’s name, excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, the national anthem, and passages from the Gettysburg Address.

After Mrs. Loose unveiled the flagpole, a detail from the Signal Corp of Field Company A raised the huge (sixty by forty feet) silk flag, which caught the breeze. This was done in time to a 21 gun salute, with the flag reaching the top of the pole right as the 21st round was fired. The sounds of honking horns augmented the sound of the gun firing.

Originally an airplane was supposed to drop 300 envelopes with cash prizes or merchandise orders on the park, but the night before the company hired to do this announced they couldn’t fulfill the contract. The city comptroller convinced Lester Head, a park employee, to dress up as Paul Revere and ride around the park tossing out the prizes. Paul Revere was busy that weekend.

You can find out more about Col. Swope, Senator Reed, Jacob Loose, and many other people in the Missouri Valley Room on the fifth floor of the Central Library, or visit our online collection.

Wishing you a safe and sane Fourth for 2011.

-- Dr. John Horner, the Missouri Valley Room

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