Celebrating 4th of July has been a highly anticipated part of Redwood City’s civic calendar since its early days. The first local newspaper, the San Mateo County Gazette, recounts in 1861 hosting patriotic activities, such as John Diller reading the Declaration of Independence at the flagpole. It also makes modern readers feel like they were there when excited locals awaited news from the Pony Express about the war, which had recently begun.
By the 1880s, the population of Redwood City began to grow due to an influx of new families, and the community began to celebrate the glorious fourth in an organized and extensive fashion. In 1887, a day-long celebration started with a 38-gun salute that put into motion the Redwood City Brass Band and other marching units. The day included two parades, fireworks, and a balloon ascension. After the turn of the century, and once the streets were completely paved, floats sponsored by the various fraternal organizations began to replace the flower-bedecked buggies of the 1890s.
It was rumored that Herbert Hoover waved to a cheering crowd of spectators from a touring car on July 4th, 1928. However, the Redwood City Tribune states that there was no parade on that date because fireworks had been banned. People went elsewhere to celebrate the holiday, prompting the newspaper’s headline “Independence Day Observed Quietly Here.” Photographic evidence does suggest President Hoover did come through Redwood City, but the parade organized for the event took place in the spring.
In 1939, a local car dealer, a butcher and a real estate agent (Ole Oleson, Walt Maloney and Charles Holt, respectively) met with Alfred “Red” Morton—then recreation director for Redwood City—to organize an expanded Fourth of July celebration that would attract residents and keep them in town. The celebration of 1939 was attended by 2,000 people in the afternoon and 10,000 for the evening fireworks display. Although today the parade is one of Redwood City’s signature events, it was originally intended to attract attention to the Rodeo. At the end of the parade, people would follow the group to the Rodeo and carnival. After their great success, community leaders decided to create a non-profit called the Peninsula Celebration Association to manage the future 4th of July celebrations.
Pony races for children in 1940 led the inclusion of a two-day rodeo in 1941. In the early years, the rodeo was held at various locations in town, including on lower Broadway, where the current Longs Drugs resides. The PCA purchased land in 1950 just north of Frank’s Tannery and erected a viewing stand (along Bayshore Highway). With large cash purses offered to the most skilled bronco buster and calf roper, the event attracted top talent from the rodeo circuit who made Redwood City an annual stop. In 1946, the crowd attending the rodeo grew to an estimated at 36,000 over a four-day period. The event also featured a selection of “Miss Redwood City/Queen of the Rodeo.” In the early years of the rodeo, the entrants were sponsored by various civic and fraternal groups, and the winner was determined by the sale of tickets to the rodeo, with the winner receiving a $100 western outfit and a two week stay at a dude ranch or $100 cash ($1240 in 2016).
Children of the 1940s and 50s still have vivid memories of watching people from the rural parts of San Mateo County riding horses in the parade, and marveling at the antics of top rodeo cowboys competing. With the great age of the Western on home television screens, the actual presence of real cowboys, and stars from television shows such as Bill Williams, who played Kit Carson, the 1954 rodeo attracted young western fans in large numbers—the Comic-Con of the 1950s.
The construction of the 101 Freeway in the mid-1950s led first to a one year suspension, and the eventual end of the rodeo. While the residents loved the event, and it was billed as the perfect reason to stay home over the Fourth of July, the efforts of producing, maintaining contact with sponsors and negotiating business tax exemptions became a challenge for PCA. The last rodeo was held in 1963. The sale of the land stabilized the finances of the PCA, and allowed them to continue with their two core activities: the parade and the fireworks.
There have been continuous parades in Redwood City since 1963; however in 2008, due to the recession, PCA could no longer fund the fireworks display. In 2012, the City of Redwood City took over the fundraising function to provide fireworks. Today, the July Fourth Parade in Redwood City is one of the largest such events in California, attracting up to an estimated 50,000 people each year. Over the years, ancillary events that reflect the latest trends of the times have ranged from bicycle tours to “fun runs.”
In the upcoming year you can expect to see many favorite traditions from the past come together for this epic event, such as the annual 5K run along the parade route prior to the parade, a pancake breakfast at the Redwood City Fire Department at the Marshall Street station, and the parade and festival featuring carnival rides and a Battle of the Bands – and of course spectacular fireworks. See you there, and don’t forget to save your spot with your lawn chairs in the wee hours of the 4th!
Mary K Spore-Alhadef has been with the Redwood City Public Library in various professional capacities since 1978. She is a graduate of Boston College and has a Masters of Library Science degree from the Peabody Library School at Vanderbilt University.
Sarah La Torra is the Division Manager of Customer Experience at the Redwood City Public Library. She has held various library positions in California since 2003. She holds a Bachelors of Environmental Studies degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a Masters of Library and Information Science degree from the University of California at Los Angeles.
Adapted from Redwood City: A Hometown History, Star Publishing Company, Inc., PO BOX 5165 Belmont CA 94002-5165 ISBN: 978-089863-297-2(Available from the Redwood City Public Library Local History Room or Amazon.com)