HomeCity Government NewsPicnics, Parades and Patriotism: Fireworks on July 4th

Picnics, Parades and Patriotism: Fireworks on July 4th

Every year residents and friends of San Marino gather to celebrate America’s birthday with a parade, fireworks, picnics and plenty of red, white and blue. The focal point of the celebration is Lacy Park in the heart of the city. Over a century ago the Wilson, Shorb and Patton families lived on properties surrounding the park. It was not a park then; it was a lake. Lake Vineyard supplied the surrounding area with water for crops and as the population grew and agricultural demands increased, the waters receded.

By the early 20th century the lake was no more than a marsh, even drying up in seasons of drought. Mosquitos bred in the damp shallows. In 1923, property owner Robert Frick proposed subdividing the area into small lots with inexpensive houses. Henry Huntington, William Hertrich and George Patton unhappy at the thought of low-cost housing proposed the city build a park. Frick was convinced to sell the property to the city and San Marino residents overwhelmingly supported a bond issue to provide $80,000 for park construction. Work began in 1926.

Councilman Hertrich, responsible for shaping the transition of Huntington’s San Marino Ranch to botanic gardens, served as park commissioner and oversaw the city park’s design and building. Three years earlier he had invited Armin Thurnher, son of his mentor in Austria, to be head gardener on The Huntington property. In 1926, Thurnher was hired by the city and became the city’s first park superintendent. These two men, Hertrich and Thurnher, were responsible for much of the beautification of San Marino in the first half of the twentieth century.

The swampy land was reclaimed. A drainage system was installed and thousands of cubic yards of soil were brought in from the excavation of new buildings at Caltech. Rare plants and trees were planted, many donated by Henry Huntington, and a gathering place for families soon emerged. In 1940 the city council renamed the city park in honor of long-serving councilman and mayor Richard Lacy and his wife Maud Sullivan Lacy.

Lacy Park has hosted Fourth of July festivities, Easter sunrise services, youth summer camps, Boy and Girl Scout sleepovers, numerous community gatherings and most recently the annual San Marino Motor Classic. Young and old enjoy the park. Every morning there are runners, joggers and walkers, people practicing Tai Chi and children enjoying the newly renovated playground facility.

In 1965 resident Joan Kemper envisioned an old-fashioned Independence Day Celebration in San Marino. She wanted a patriotic, small town affair that included a parade with antique cars, children, music and no commercial floats. The parade was to end in Lacy Park where residents could enjoy a picnic and a fireworks display. She recruited community service clubs to participate. H. H. McCormick, publisher of the San Marino Tribune, publicized the plan and provided free ads. Before long Joan Kemper was being called the “Betsy Ross of San Marino” for her organizing effort.

According to a Tribune article on June 17, 1965, a meeting took place to plan the festivities. Attendees at the meeting included residents and representatives of the City of San Marino, the San Marino Unified School District, San Marino Tribune, San Marino Women’s Club, American Legion, Exchange Club, Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis Club, Lions Club, Rotary Club, San Marino City Club, San Marino DAR, Boy Scouts, and the Recreation Department.

Service clubs donated money for the fireworks and offered volunteers to organize the parade and picnic. Specific duties were assigned and the group chose the Chamber of Commerce to lead the effort. The Chamber continued to coordinate the 4th of July event until 1999. In 1998 Chamber Manager Peggy Class was chosen as Grand Marshall in recognition of her organizing efforts from 1970 until her retirement in 1997. In 2000, the Rotary Club took over the responsibility of organizing the day’s celebrations.

About 3,000 people attended San Marino’s first 4th of July celebration. Cheering crowds lined the original parade route along Huntington Drive, Virginia Road and into Lacy Park. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, along with the American Legion, led a flag salute and Mayor Harry Hitchcock welcomed the crowd. Mrs. Anthony Accadia provided musical accompaniment on an electric organ. The San Marino Tribune described the day as a “unique combination of anticipation, pride, excitement, delight and patriotism.” What began as a vision for Joan Kemper has become a San Marino tradition.

The parade route has changed over the years. Children are now an integral part of the parade, leading with their bicycles, tricycles, roller skates and more. Some years have seen Rose Parade princesses, championship sports teams, elected officials, military honor guards and the occasional pet. The parade, picnics and fireworks are the centerpiece of San Marino’s Independence Day festivities. Special activities, such as swim meets and children’s games were included some years. The inaugural J. P. Blecksmith Memorial 5K took place on July 4, 2005. The event for competitive runners, recreational runners and walkers has grown each year since and is one of the few races in the San Gabriel Valley on the Fourth of July and now a San Marino tradition.

The popularity of San Marino’s Fourth of July festivities grew quickly and within the first ten years concerns about the event becoming too popular were raised. Worried about the safety of participants and residents, the city limited the number of attendees in 2001 to 10,000. The new system allowed residents to purchase wristbands in advance. It was a sell out.

Send comments and suggestions to historyofsanmarino@gmail.com.


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