Philadelphia's National Sesquicentennial in 1926 set the standard for community disasters.
How and when a community is born often defies control. Events, resources, geography, and circumstances align themselves and make the launch of a town nearly an evolutionary, biological certainty.
In 1865, it finally was time for Barrington to be born. But Barrington's relatively late arrival affords the village an opportunity to build on other history for a grand 150-year sesquipalooza in 2015.
Community sesquicentennials can make local denizens go a little goofy. Happily goofy.
Men grow oddly large beards. Women wear ancient frocks and bonnets. Heritage is hailed. Music is played. Art is celebrated. Fun is had.
We swoon for 150th anniversaries because they impart permanence and reputation to our cause. Even if you are a young whippersnapper country, being 150 years old shows you're here to stay.
In the absence of obsessively complete planning, however, there are plenty of cautionary examples that show how badly sesquicentennial celebrations can go.
The idea of sesquicentennials is primarily an American phenomenon – or at least North American – mostly because the world has been in organized operation for centuries. So celebrating 150 years of anything seems pointless to them. Some Italian sidewalks are 3,000 years old.
Comparatively, Barrington was founded barely yesterday in historical terms. America is a newbie.
As Barrington will find out, doing even a hometown sesqui can be complicated, but smaller towns always have advantages because such celebrations seem more suited to intimate, well-run communities. Fewer people in charge can each have a bigger positive effect and more charm.
When Barrington was founded, Lake County was already a bustling place. History could not wait.
The nation had just lost 600,000 of its own citizens in the Civil War, and Lake County had contributed hundreds of soldiers to that conflagration, including a Medal of Honor winner at Vicksburg two years earlier. He was a 14-year-old drummer boy from Waukegan whose dad was the regimental band leader.
The son enlisted at 12 and was discharged from the Union Army a year before Barrington existed. Orion Perseus Howe owned the face of a scruffy angel and heart of a lion. He came marching home a hero.
In the 19th century, the world was gaga over world fairs and international expositions. They held them in every country to reaffirm the health of culture and commerce. As for America, the nation did passably well with its Centennial in 1876 (we tried to heal ourselves from the Civil War and such grandiose celebrations always looked more fitting in the 19th century) and the Bicentennial in 1976 was relatively low-key. It was a Madison Avenue hootenanny.
But when the nation celebrated its Sesquicentennial in 1926, it was a wholly-owned Philadelphia disaster from which the old city barely emerged. Everything went wrong. The fiasco proved that bigger is not always better and ambition is a trapdoor.
Luckily, all Barrington has to do is learn from that history. Don't fake it. Be yourself.
The morning of Sept. 23, 1926, opened gray and sullen. And wet. It was raining in Philadelphia. But that was nothing new. It seemed to be raining continually even since the Sesquicentennial International Exposition launched with more ambition than good sense.
The moneyed patrons of Philadelphia industry and society had talked of nothing for years else except saluting the nation's 150th birthday, but there had not been much actual planning. So when the party was given its official green light, only 14 months remained to get the buildings constructed, the exhibits gathered, and the tickets printed.
The organizers would spend millions – and leave a $9 million debt for Philadelphia that would endure for years.
What they had least accounted for was that rain would fall in at least half of the days of the Sesquicentennial.
Philadelphia was a soggy mess. But on Sept. 23, the rain did not stop, nor would it stop the fight of the century between heavyweights Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey. At least 120,000 fans filled the stadium that is now called John F. Kennedy Stadium in a driving downpour to watch a much fitter Tunney wrest the title from Dempsey. The champ was at least 10 years older and wore the wounds from a hard life. There was no knockout, but Tunney danced and boxed to the title. The soggy crowd went wild.
City fathers said visitors to the fight added $3 million to city revenues. It was good news for a Sesquicentennial that desperately needed good news.
The grand celebration attracted a total of 4,662,211 paying customers. They had thought 25 million would come.
On 107 of the Sesqui's 184 days, rain fell; there was rain on 19 of 26 weekends. And some of the buildings and roads at the exposition site never did get finished. The exposition seemed most intent on showing off large piles of wet mud.
Odd, unusual things everywhere
Barely two months before the six-month event was scheduled to start, a city councilman arose in a council meeting to shout that the grounds were a downtown dump. The city, he said, would be a global laughingstock.
Though he was right, the Sesquicentennial was not a total waste.
This was an exposition whose style and substance resembled all others that had preceded it. But this was the 20th century, not the 19th, and sensibilities had changed. The Philly Sesqui was a place of "things", products, merchandise, foreign curios, and scientific oddities. The tone of all such celebrations reverted to the traditional norm of natural history museums.
Talking movies, still a year away from introduction in regular theaters, flickered alive daily. There were primitive photo-radio receivers and transmitters for the sending of pictures "on the air," electrical refrigeration, and dictating machines.
The cultural tone-setters were Secretary of State, Frank B. Kellogg, and Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. Both were tragically dull speakers. Hoover, who would launch the Depression three years later as president, spent his welcoming speech berating Americans for their moral decline, which was not the party atmosphere organizers had sought to engender.
But what the Sesqui could not summon was an energetic sense of competence. The 250,000 Shriners who convened on the first week as goodwill ambassadors all went home and told hometown friends to skip vacations in Philadelphia. They did.
The task before Barrington's organizers is not so grim or perilous, of course. This will be a gorgeous hometown celebration, and the entire world will not be watching for large-scale disasters. Sometimes it pays to be small.
So, plan well, Barrington. Don't let Hoover speak. And just pray it doesn't rain, or snow.
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Quintessential America is a recurring series of stories reflecting American values and community achievement. Some will be big stories. Some will be small. They'll all be about Americans doing what we do best — sharing, helping, living.
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David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.