Backroads

Bunting festoons a float in an unmarked Belton Fourth of July parade as it rolls north on Main Street in front of the former Carnegie Public Library, now part of the Bell County Museum. The celebration this Thursday marks a century of Belton’s patriotic pomp and pageantry.

This year’s Belton July Fourth parade and related festivities are a hundred years in the making. The celebration this Thursday marks a century of Belton’s patriotic pomp and pageantry.

In 2008, USA Today named Belton’s Independence Day parade as one of the nation’s “Top Ten Places to Fly Your Flag on the Fourth.” No wonder. For a brief moment, we’re all slack-jawed at those hearty souls who brave the sweltering sun and the sore feet — all under the rap-tappy-boom of drums.

This year will be no different, only better and older. Belton’s Fourth of July parade kicks off at 10 a.m. sharp. A panorama of decorated bikes, trikes, tractors, trucks and horses will march through city streets.

The first parade began in 1919, an auspicious time. Post-war optimism in 1919 spread over Bell County like a comfortable blanket. Fighting in the Great War ended in November 1918; the horrific worldwide influenza epidemic abated by February 1919. Soldiers were returning home from Europe. Life was getting back to normal, whatever that new normal would be.

The parade, which today has been become a statewide institution, was tacked on to Belton’s already full slate of Independence Day celebrations a hundred years ago.

Like all the years before, Belton always celebrated the Fourth in raucous style with street fairs, speeches by dignitaries, entertainment and generally happy times. It was only fitting that Belton’s July Fourth 1919 become a special day to honor its returning war heroes and remember those who would not return.

Back in 1919, the Belton American Legion Post took charge of the annual veteran conventions held in conjunction with the festivities. Special guests were the few remaining veterans of the War Between the States along with veterans of the Spanish-American War and World War I.

Legionnaires set up registration booths and requested that veterans of all wars sign up, listing their full names, ranks at discharge, number of battles and any wounds. Veterans were urged to attend the parade in uniform to march in formation. Bell County still had a few veterans of the Republic of Texas, Civil War and Spanish-American War in its midst. The County’s Council of Defense, active during the Great War, gave each veteran a copy of “The Home Fires Burning,” a magazine compiled by George W. Tyler (1851–1927), historian, lawyer and politician, to support war bond sales.

The Declaration of Independence was an act of defiance; the first Belton Fourth of July parade in 1919 might have been considered the same. The special speaker kicking off the first parade was Dr. Robert Ernest Vinson (1876–1945), seventh president of the University of Texas from 1916-1923.

At the start of Vinson’s UT presidency, Gov. Jim Ferguson of Temple sought his dismissal and that of six faculty members whom he disliked. The governor also attempted to oust regents who opposed him and vetoed almost all of the university’s appropriation for 1917-1919. Vinson successfully fought these efforts; Ferguson was impeached by the Texas Legislature for these and other actions. Bell County celebrants considered Vinson’s appearance as a dismissal of Ferguson and his cronies.

Bunting and flags — store-bought and homemade — festooned buildings, carriages and automobiles. The Temple Daily Telegram loaned a large number of U.S. flags to the city that were erected at Confederate Park. The first Belton celebration also included a pie-eating contest for the children (grand prize was $5).

By the second year of Independence Day celebrations in 1920, a swimming contest and boxing matches were added to a full schedule of activities. The city flooded Nolan Creek to create a lake for the swimming contest, while other celebrants enjoyed cool dips in the downtown Natatorium.

“Something doing every minute,” the Belton Journal reported.

Estimating the crowd at 30,000, the Journal effusively praised the city for the celebration, lending additional thanks to “the cooperation … by other towns of the county.”

Within five years, the Belton Fourth of July parade had taken on an identity of its own, separate from the other contests, concerts and celebrating going on downtown. The Belton Journal announced 25,000 gathered to see the parade, “the largest crowd ever.” Maybe the editor forgot that 30,000 had seen it back in 1920.

As was the custom, the Belton High School band furnished the music. Forty members of the National Guard 143 Infantry led the color guard. Six automobiles, two decorated fire trucks and dozens of mounted horsemen rode by. “Snell,” the dancing horse, was a crowd favorite.

The Farm Bureau drove a truck bearing two bales of cotton. Eight Klansman from the local Ku Klux Klan rode a float, accompanied by four Klansmen on horseback.

Throughout the decade, the veterans’ reunions grew, as did the parade and other related activities. The rodeo became an official part of the Belton Area Chamber of Commerce’s celebration in 1924. In the early 1930s, the rodeo joined the Cowboys Turtle Association (now the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association).

The 1929 celebration was typical. Belton’s popular community music group, the White Horse Band, began the grand procession at 9:30 a.m. The parade promenaded through the city streets to Yettie Polk Park, where politicians and other prominent citizens made speeches.

Of course, the day capped off with the most popular events — fireworks, rodeo, fiddling and yo-yo competitions.

Even wars and economic depression only intensified the flags and pageantry. The Belton celebrations continued through World War II, with Camp Hood’s participation growing as prominent and proud additions. By 1945, with military victories in Europe and Asia, Belton’s July Fourth was a homecoming for its hometown hero, Maj. Gen. Walton Harris Walker (1889–1950), who as commander of the IV Armored Corps and XX Corps, was given special commendations for his leadership in the European theatre. Walker did not rest on his laurels.

In 1948, he was made commanding general of the U.S. Eighth Army in Japan. With the Communist invasion of South Korea in 1950, Walker was directed to stop the invasion.

Another fixture in the 1950s Belton parade was Fred Guffy (1900-1985), riding a 1907 Hupmobile. The crowds also cheered the presence of Old Rufus, a 39-year-old horse who pranced down the city streets each year until his demise.

Another joyful addition was the “wagon train” of cars pulled by Dr. William Bowman Long (1921-2010).

The Belton parade was and is the best example of small-town America and all that it means.