This Is our Village

Saturday, June 16, 2012


An Illegal Independence Day Tradition

             I have written a serious article on Independence Day, which may appear in the July UCO Reporter. Having thus done my due diligence to the day and our forefathers, I feel excused to share what was an illegal tradition for years in the part of Dedham, Mass. where we lived as kids and which, though a bit shameful, I have to admit we gloried in, kids and grownups alike.

            This was the burning-of-the-wagons bonfire in Oakdale Square on the night of July 3, Independence Day eve. 

            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. 


  1. You had quite a racy childhood! I enjoy your stories here and in the UCO Reporter.

  2. I was never personally involved in the wagon business myself, Anita, although I was certainly an interested spectator. I found out after posting the above, though, that my youngest brother WAS involved, and that store windows DID break from the heat. This must have been after my time. Here's what Arthur (you know him!) sent me just now. He's the "racy" one!


    Please send the one about the wagons when you can. Here is a photo from the Dedham archives [can't get it to reproduce] when the wagon era was just about finished due to the dangers created by police resistance coupled with our insistence on pulling them to the square despite their efforts to stop us. This was the period when I was actively involved. So much so that, one dark night, during an attempted heist of a railroad car in the Readville car yards, I was shot at by either railroad police or Boston police as we escaped from the "busted" caper. I had earlier finished a baseball game and was still wearing my white baseball uniform. Now, as Raymond [our other brother] used to often tell me, I was clearly at my height of "dumpth." We never did know who it was that was literally firing at us. Not just in the air, I might add, there were sparks from bullets hitting a brick wall in front of us as all we made our escapes. My method of escape was a bit different and more complicated and harrowing than the others, but that's a story for another time. As I think back, that may have been another "height of dumpth" spontaneous decision.

    Around 1962 the fire was so intense in the square that several large plate glass windows in the drugstore broke. Things finally got so out of hand the wagon era ended mainly due to the dangers and in part because the wagons themselves became harder and harder to find.


  3. @Lanny... if we see a wagon burning on July 3rd in the CV clubhouse square, we will know who to look for. Hopefully, you will not be wearing your brother's baseball uniform. :) Great story. Thanks for sharing.


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