Small Town Time Warp
Spreckels' Fourth of July is the same now as it was 30 years ago-minus the fireworks and with different hairdos.
Thursday, July 4, 2002
Photos courtesy of Lee Smith
Photo: Small Is Beautiful-the competition was somewhere between friendly and ferocious at the 1998 Spreckels Water Ball (above). The same year, a band of ruffians crashed the party (below).
There''s a table in the back corner of the Spreckels Fire Hall piled high with old dusty photo albums-the monster-sized ones favored by sports teams, moms and wedding photographers. Starting with 1970, each album cover has a year or two or five written on it. Lee Smith, a member of the Spreckels Fire Company family by marriage and the unofficial town photographer, digs into the pile for an early album. These are her babies-Smith has shot all the photos and filled all the picture books documenting the annual Fourth of July celebrations, Halloween costume balls, Christmas parties, assorted barbecues and firemen''s gatherings from 1970 to 1999. "These books are our history," she says.
Today she''s in search of July Fourth memories. Each year, the tiny town of Spreckels, population 749, puts on an Independence Day extravaganza. A few thousand people from all over the county come for the 10K run, the state''s shortest parade and a crafts fair. There''s face painting for the kids, a Fireman''s Muster competition and as many food booths as can set up a grill in Spreckels Memorial Park.
"Basically, year to year, the pictures all look alike," Smith says. "The faces just get a little older."
For the record, the clothing and the hairstyles change, too. Smith flips open the cover to 1970, the first annual Fourth of July celebration. It was a Saturday, and a handful of Spreckels community groups had decided to throw a big party, an "Old Time Celebration," to dedicate the new streets and sidewalks (previously dirt and gravel) and the newly renovated park. Festivities included a children''s parade, a hose cart race and a Little League baseball game complete with hot dogs, sodas and cotton candy. Barbershop quartets entertained the older folks, and a teen dance and firework sales kept the young ''uns busy. A big firework show capped off the night.
"The next year [in 1971] the fire company took over," Smith says, "and they''ve taken care of it ever since."
Aerial fireworks displays ended in 1974. It wasn''t unusual for the Fire Company to bring in $20,000 on a single day of fireworks sales, Lee says, although those, too, stopped in the late ''80s. Some other events, like horseshoe tournaments and square dancing, also came and went.
The old photos show a culture that now looks as innocent and remote as that of the Fifties. In a yellowing 1970 photograph, Congressman Burt Talcott stands on a red, white and blue stage next to beauty queens and townsmen. Little League baseball players look up at him from the park''s lawn below.
"Margie Vasquez was the parade queen, although I really don''t remember how she was picked," Smith says, pointing to the slightly out-of-focus image of a pretty girl wearing an up ''do and a long pink gown and standing on a parade float that looks like a birthday cake.
"And that''s the American LaFrance," Smith says, pointing at an old restored 1922 fire engine. "Thirty-two years and it still leads the children''s parade. It''s the fire company''s pride and joy. And I was the first woman ever to drive it-but you don''t have to write that down."
More recent pictures show firemen and women competing in the bucket brigade race, passing buckets full of water down a line to be emptied into a large tub. They show hundreds of runners crowding the Spreckels streets in the 10K race, and teams of firefighters playing "water ball," using streams of water from the fire hoses to shoot a beer keg across a cable suspended in the air. The first team to move the keg to the end of the cable wins.
And every album shows Lee''s husband Sandy, a retired Spreckels fire chief, announcing the muster.
"After 33 years," she says, "last year''s was the first year we came as spectators only."
"What they do is magnificent," adds Sandy Smith, talking about the current crop of volunteers and reminiscing about his days as an active participant. "The day of the Fourth, you get up at 4am, meet in the firehouse, and the ladies cook breakfast for all the guys. We set up all the booths in the park, block all the streets off for the parade and try to get things organized. Guys are coming and going, setting things up for the muster, setting things up for the parade. It''s always a real fun deal."
Then about 6pm, the same volunteers-firefighters, their friends and family members-tear down the booths and head back to the firehouse.
"Some of the guys put on a big barbecue for us," Sandy says. "We always invited all the people who helped with the day."
In the good old days, people would shoot off fireworks in the park-"it was like a war zone out there"-and stay for the aerial fireworks show in the sky above Spreckels School.
And the most popular event?
"The people just mulling around," Sandy says, "enjoying the company and visiting. That''s the focal point."