Harmon’s Histories: Pocketbooks once opened for Missoula’s Fourth of July fireworks show
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
I see that we’re, once again, without a plan for any large fireworks show on the Fourth of July. Lack of money seems to be the problem – again.
There was no such issue in 1898.
In a span of just four hours, on June 15th, local businessmen pledged more than $500 (the equivalent of roughly $18,000 today) to pay for the show. Just four hours!
Missoula’s Daily Democrat Messenger newspaper wrote, “Everybody in town is surely Fourth-of-July crazy, and there appears to be a veritable stampede towards the object sought to be obtained.”
And that was just the contribution from the “big bugs” (prominent business house owners). Another $300 came from average citizens.
“Messrs. McLeod and Webster, who yesterday circulated the (subscriber) list, state they met with very few refusals, a gratifying feature, indeed, and are loud in their praise of those gentlemen who subscribed cheerfully the moment they were approached.”
The Missoula Mercantile led the list with a $100 donation. The First National Bank, Missoula Water Company and a couple of private citizens coughed up $25 each. The rest of the first-day donors contributed anywhere from $10 to $15 each ($300 to $500, today).
The force behind this whole adventure was John L. Sloane, a native New Yorker and 2nd Lieutenant in the Second California Volunteer Cavalry, who had served at Fort Missoula in the late 1870s.
He left the army in 1881 and became Missoula’s first police magistrate in 1883. By 1889, he was elected Missoula’s seventh mayor and the town’s clerk of district court (at the same time).
In 1898, the celebration committees and subcommittees all met at Sloan’s house, coming up with specific plans for the big day’s activities.
A bicycle parade (bicycles were hugely popular at the turn of the century, offering a low-cost alternative to the horse and buggy) was planned with a long list of prizes.
The grand prize was a sterling silver loving cup worth $50 for the “best float built on a single wheel, tandem or combination of wheels.
A $20 prize would go to the best “uniformed squad of twelve members, appearance and precision of drill to be considered.”
Unfortunately, the following days’ publications failed to list the winners in each category, but we did learn that “to the credit of the people of Missoula and her guests that not a single scrap or arrest was recorded” on the Fourth.
We also know that “the WRC cleared $80.75 from their refreshment stand in courthouse square (and) they could have taken in more, but for the fact that they ran out of supplies and could not replenish the stand.”
The Daily Democrat Messenger also noted community suggestions that “the naval floats (exhibited in the Fourth of July parade) be exhibited at the ballpark some evening in a sham battle.”
“Rockets could be used as guns, bombs as shells, the acetylene lamps as search lights. An exhibition of this character would afford considerable amusement to say nothing of the novelty of the feature.”
One of the boat-floats was designed as a mini-version of the “U.S.S. Vesuvius,” a “dynamite cruiser” with massive 15-inch cast-iron guns measuring 55 feet in length. It “deservingly won first prize for the best naval subject.”
Another crowd-pleaser was the tug-of-war “between the railroad men and the city men for a barrel of Garden City best beer.”
The question is: Where are 2023’s versions of local leaders like John L. Sloane, today’s versions of business houses like the Missoula Mercantile, the First National Bank or the Missoula Water Company, and today’s versions of the Woman's Relief Corps (WRC)?
Once again, this year, Missoulians will have to travel on the Fourth to enjoy a pyrotechnic display – to Polson, Lolo Hot Springs Resort, or other venues.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.