Site  by Lynne Landwehr © 2001






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Higuera Street, July 4th, 1890

     The large-scale photo (see above) in the Wells Fargo Bank at 665 Marsh Street, San Luis Obispo, shows the members of the Fire Department of the City of San Luis Obispo as they prepare to march in the July 4th parade of 1890; they are wearing new uniforms for the occasion. On the right is City Hall (at 867 Higuera Street, the present site of Charles Shoes). Built in 1879, this Classical-Revival-style building housed city and police offices on the second floor, and fire-fighting equipment and the fire horses on the ground floor. 

Decorations and Preparations

By July 3rd, residents had bought up all available American flags in order to decorate their homes, schools, and places of business. Monterey and Higuera Streets were livened by flags and bunting fluttering in the breeze, and the electric company created a memorable display by stringing red, white, and blue incandescent lights "clear across Monterey Street." 

Extra police officers were hired, storekeepers were urged to clear all rubbish from their premises, and the street-watering apparatus had been put to work to keep the dust down and reduce the chances of fire. All of these preparations were justified as the crowd swelled to an estimated 8,000 people at a time when the entire population of the county was just over 16,000.

The Parade

Grand Marshall J. C. Castro, accompanied by 50 mounted aids, led the parade. Four brass bands played, and the floats included a triumphal car carrying the "Goddess of Liberty" surrounded by 42 young ladies representing all the states of the union, and a rolling blacksmith shop "in full operation with a burro for a subject." 

Other Festivities

Other festivities included sack races, a pie race for boys, an egg-and-spoon race for girls, a fat man's race for men weighing over 225 pounds, a climb-the-greased-pole contest, horse races, a baseball game, and a balloon ascension. In the evening, the brass bands played at the Pavilion Theater (formerly on the corner at Monterey and Toro Streets). This was followed by a Grand Ball.

Other Buildings on Higuera Street

The San Luis Hotel, several doors up from City Hall, was one of five or so hotels in town, and claimed to serve "the best 25-cent meal in the city." Proprietress Mary Kieran catered to visitors from far and near at a time when "near" was still pretty far, at least in terms of how long it took to make the trip to San Luis. Among the hotel's arrivals on the night before the festivities were 12 people from points within the county, including Arroyo Grande, Carissa, Edna, Los Berros, Los Osos, Pilitas, Pozo, and Santa Margarita. 

The Masonic Hall, several doors up from the San Luis Hotel, was built in 1875. Myron Angel, in his 1883 History of San Luis Obispo County, described it as "elegantly fitted up and furnished….two stories in height, with the lodge room in the upper story, and the lower [story] appropriated for mercantile purposes." 

The Function of The Fourth

Early celebrations of the July 4th holiday helped cement communal bonds among residents from many different backgrounds. The 1890 school census reflected the county's diversity-almost 40 per cent of the schoolchildren were either foreign-born themselves or had one or both parents who were foreign-born. As one newspaper account mentioned, a lively celebration of the nation's birthday did much to keep "the Angel of Discord" at bay. 

A Patriotic Vision?

One of the orators at this 1890 celebration expressed the fervent patriotism felt by many: "We are Americans. It matters not whether this is our country by birth or by adoption, whether our eyes first opened to the light here, or under the skies of the old world, we are none the more, nor none the less, Americans. And as we gaze upon our national ensign-that flag which…has been the symbol of freedom and [which] to the refugees from the iron heel of European despotism has afforded protection, liberty, equality, and the peaceable pursuit of happiness, our hearts expand and our cheeks glow with the burning enthusiasm of patriotic emotion." 

That the speaker's vision did not include people of non-European origin is scarcely surprising. In this same year, the state of Mississippi imposed a poll tax and literacy tests to restrict voting by African Americans; at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, U.S. Cavalry troops massacred a band of 350 Sioux, most of them unarmed, and including many women and children; and locally and throughout the West, Chinese immigrants were suffering the discrimination and indignities reserved for those of non-European origin. 

Changes, and a Wider Vision

But times were changing. This was the year that newspaperwoman Nellie Bly made her famous trip around the world in less than 80 days. Architect Louis Sullivan and his apprentice Frank Lloyd Wright were pioneering the design of the first skyscrapers. And New York police reporter Jacob August Riis, in his study of tenement life entitled How the Other Half Lives, pointed to the root causes of crime and disease, and issued a plea for compassion and social justice for all people: "The gap between the classes is widening day by day….I know of but one bridge that will carry us over safe, a bridge founded upon justice and built of human hearts."

Lynne Landwehr © 2001

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