Fayette County Fourth of July
Find info on the 2016 Round Top 4th of July Celebration Here.
Yesterday was the 231st Fourth of July to be celebrated in the United States since bells rang out in Philadelphia to celebrate the passage of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress in 1776. (Editor’s Note: This piece is reprinted from Texas, My Texas: Musings of the Rambling Boy by Lonn Taylor with permission of TCU Press and was originally published in the Marfa Big Bend Sentinel on July 5, 2007.) Actually, those first bells rang out on July 8 because, although Congress passed the Declaration on the evening of the fourth, it was not publicly proclaimed until the eighth when, as John Adams wrote to a friend, bells pealed all day and all night, and soldiers fired salutes on the Philadelphia common “notwithstanding the scarcity of powder.” But ever since then we have celebrated Independence Day on the fourth. (See a summary of this year’s parade here.)
In the 1970s I lived in a tiny German community called Round Top (population: 70 then) in Fayette County about halfway between Austin and Houston. The folks who lived there were notoriously sociable; in fact, a history of Fayette County published in 1910 said, “The town of Round Top is noted for the splendor of its feasts.” The biggest feast of all was the Fourth of July. It was even bigger than Schuetzenfest, the annual meeting of the Round Top Rifle Club at which members shot at an iron target all morning, drank beer all afternoon and danced all night.
There was an old joke in Round Top about a local boy who was being prepared for confirmation in the Lutheran Church. One of the questions in the Lutheran catechism is “What are the three great feasts of the Christian year?” to which the answer is “Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.” When this young man was asked the question, he unhesitatingly responded (in German), “Weinachtfest, Schuetzenfest und Viertenjuli” (Christmas, Shooting Feast and Fourth of July).
The Fourth of July has been celebrated continuously in Round Top since the town was founded in the early 1850s, and a body of folklore has grown up around the celebration, stories that are repeated every year on the Fourth. In the 1870s, part of the celebration involved firing a cannon that was left on the town square by Union troops stationed there during Reconstruction. On one memorable Fourth, a local smart aleck insisted on stuffing twice as much powder as usual down the cannon’s barrel and then climbing astride it as the touch hole was lit. The barrel exploded and killed him. This was always related as a cautionary tale to small boys who were lighting firecrackers, and the remnant of the cannon, which had been buried with its stub end protruding from the grass, was pointed out as evidence of careless behavior.
Then there is the story about Nana Schulz who died a few years before I moved to Round Top. Nana was what people in Round Top called “afflicted,” meaning he was somewhat simple. But he had been born on the Fourth of July, and he considered the Fourth his personal birthday party. For 70 years he went through the crowd watching the parade holding out his palm and saying, “Gib mir nickel fur Gerburtstag” — “Give me a nickel for my birthday.” When he died, his relatives found hundreds of dollars in nickels in a box under his bed.
The crowds on the square were large on the Fourth because the celebration served as a homecoming for everyone in Texas who had any connection with Round Top, and there were usually several thousand people in town that day. When I lived there, the ceremonies were started at 10 a.m. on the town square by Mayor Don Nagel who always welcomed everyone with a short speech about the “glorious traditions of the ancient city of Round Top” and invited all present to the barbecue at the Rifle Hall after the parade. This was followed by an invocation by the Lutheran pastor, who was followed by the retired school principal John Banik, who delivered a half-hour long oration entitled “Heroes in Unmarked Graves.” Banik had been giving this speech, which dealt with residents of Fayette County who fought in the Texas Revolution, since about 1940, and most of the audience could recite it from memory. He always worried that the invocation would cut into his speaking time and invariably, just as the mayor was winding up his welcome, Banik would turn to the Lutheran pastor and say, “Listen, couldn’t we have the invocation after the oration?” and the pastor would patiently explain why it couldn’t be that way.
The high point of the morning was the parade, which consisted of half a dozen floats representing organizations such as the Sons of Hermann and the Do Your Duty Club, followed by everyone else in town on horseback. The Sons of Hermann float was always the same—a dozen or so Hermann Sons sitting around a table on a flatbed trailer drinking beer, getting a head start on the rest of the town. One year I rode in the parade in a full-size replica of an 1850 Abbot & Downing Concord stagecoach accompanied by Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg who had a weekend home in Round Top and had restored a historic farmstead near the town. The coach was pulled by three mules and an old mare belonging to a local farmer named Fritz Schoenst who liked to fool with mules, but the next week the Houston Post’s society page reported that Miss Hogg had ridden in a coach pulled by four white stallions. The society reporter was clearly not a careful observer of horseflesh.
The year Gov. Dolph Briscoe closed down Fayette County’s most venerable enterprise, a bawdy house near La Grange called the Chicken Ranch, Texas Observer coeditors Molly Ivins and Kaye Northcott proposed putting a float in the parade that would feature them in nightgowns reclining on a brass bedstead with flapping chickens tethered to it. They planned to toss copies of a 45 RPM record by ZZ Top entitled “La Grange” to the crowd, but the Fayette County sheriff, a nice old gentleman who had been terribly embarrassed by the whole Chicken Ranch episode, let it be known that he would prefer that they not do that, and Ivins and Northcott graciously withdrew the idea. I’ve always wished they’d gone ahead with it; they would have joined Nana Schulz and the careless cannoneer in Round Top Fourth of July mythology.
by Lonn Taylor
Lonn Taylor is a historian who lives in Fort Davis, Texas and writes columns about Texas history for the Marfa Big Bend Sentinel and Texas Monthly magazine. For 20 years, Taylor served as a historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. He lived in Round Top from 1970 to 1977 when he was director of the Winedale Historical Center.