Saturday, June 16, 2012
THE BURNING OF THE WAGONS
An Illegal Independence Day Tradition
Five streets—which had many streets branching off them—led like spokes of a wheel into Oakdale Square, where there were a church, drugstore, grocery store, beauty salon, community “spa,” small meat market and, offset to one side, the wooden schoolhouse where we went to first and second grade. These were arranged in a ring around the large, open square, which had a single traffic light in the middle.
During the year a coterie of teenage boys (few knew exactly who they were) mysteriously acquired wooden wagons and big wooden carts, and hid them in safe places. “Acquired” is the polite word—everyone knew that many of the wagons had been stolen, often in the dead of the night, from neighboring farms as many as ten miles away in other towns.
They filled the wagons with old boards and other wooden combustibles, moving them nearer and nearer to Oakdale Square during the year, so they could be set afire and rolled into the Square on the night of July 3.
You never knew on which street a wagon would come rolling into the Square, which kept the police, who were never out in full force, off balance. They were also hindered because having doused a wagon with kerosene, the boys would set it ablaze a block or two before it reached the Square. Tree branches often extended over the streets, so if a wagon were stopped after it had been set on fire, the trees and possibly even houses might catch fire.
The “show” began about 10:00 p.m., after it was dark, and lasted about two hours. A number of wagons entered the square on Sanderson Avenue, because it was downhill, but others came in on the more level streets, and I remember once when everyone was surprised as a wagon was pushed up the steep River Street hill into the Square.
A number of the adults disapproved of the tradition because it involved the theft of the wagons, was not a sanctioned activity, and made a mess of the asphalt in the Square. But most of the same disapproving adults gathered in the Square to watch the spectacle. Some were afraid the huge bonfire would crack the surrounding store windows, but it never did. People, after all, were watching from in front of the stores, so it wasn’t that hot at that distance. Strangely, it never seemed to affect the traffic light, which was nearby.
I moved from Dedham, and some years later I learned that the police had finally put a stop to the burning of the wagons. It had gone on for decades. I guess it was a good thing. Someone could have been hurt or killed, and it certainly was not right for the poor farmers to lose their wagons. It was an era many of us will never forget.