Fourth of July celebrations

A pudding-eating contest at the Old Harbor Fourth of July celebration.

In a letter to his wife Abagail, John Adams, the second president of the United States, foresaw a grand celebration of America’s independence, which occurs on the Fourth of July.

Wrote Adams, Independence Day “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more. (It) will be the most memorable epocha, in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival.”

When I came across President Adams’ words the other day, I was reminded of the invigorating Fourth of July celebrations I witnessed in the Kodiak Island village of Old Harbor. The first I attended was in 1980. The late Sven Haakanson, longtime mayor of Old Harbor, was the instigator for the celebration. 

At the time I was a staff writer (and later, editor) of the weekly Kodiak newspaper, the Kadiak Times. Covering the Old Harbor Fourth of July celebration was the highlight of my summer writing.

The following are excerpts from stories I wrote in 1980 and 1981.

 “Old Harbor’s festive recognition of our nation’s independence is one of the most colorful galas I’ve witnessed,” I wrote.

“The day began with a service at Three Saints Orthodox Church.

“After the service, a crowd, led by  Father Michael Oleksa (priest in the village at the time) and altar boys proceeded to the high school for a flag-raising ceremony.

“Singing strains of an Orthodox liturgy, the group solemnly made its way down Three Saints Boulevard. The sun was shining; the wind was tender. Most agreed the good Lord permitted an exceptional day for a celebration. The handsome Old Harbor fleet, replete with small and big boats, made its way past the village dock for a blessing. It’s a splendid sight to see those boats, ornamented for the occasion, pitted against the mountains and nearby Sitkalidak Island

“Once the fleet passed by, the boats lined up side by side in the Sitkalidak Strait and raced back to the harbor. An afternoon of riotous games and contests ensued. It was a long day, with activity accelerating with each contest.

“Haakanson announced each event through his megaphone, an instrument he found quite useful not only during the celebration, but beforehand as he gave instructions to those who took part in the event’s preparation.

 “The kids got in on the action as they scrambled for candy in a pile of ‘bear grass’ gathered from nearby hillsides. The adults went after different kinds of prizes, but they enjoyed themselves just as much.

“There were contests and matches that appealed to every gaming whim of adults and youngsters. For the more aggressive there was pillow-fighting, rope-pulling and a boxing match.

“Competitive runners were delighted by a mountain marathon in which participants clambered a steep grade, went round a flag and rolled down the hill of tall bear grass.  

“Other races included a sack race and a buoy race, an event Haakanson added to the celebration after watching kids playing on buoys one day.

“Food and drink were consumed — without proper etiquette — in pie and pudding-eating contests in which blindfolded contestants attempted to feed each other.

“The water balloon-toss and egg-catching contests also proved to be quite messy, with participants tossing the potentially explosive objects to each other at a short distance and taking a step back with each throw. Games continued into late afternoon when hungry participants appeased growling stomachs by eating spaghetti and pirok, served by ladies of the Church’s Sisterhood of St. Herman. At that time booths were set up, giving the crowd a variety of choices where they could test their skills in basketball-hooping, dart-throwing and other games.

“Toward evening the fog rolled in and a light mist dampened the air. The crowd dispersed; some attending a dinner hosted by Old Harbor residents, others going for a stroll. The day was far spent but an evening of dancing awaited celebration-weary folks.

“The night reverberated with sounds of lively music and explosive fire crackers.”

In summarizing the importance of the Fourth of July celebrations, Haakanson said it “is the only day of the year when the adults can become ‘kids.’ His statement seemed convincing. ‘Kids’ from three to 73 expressed youthful, vigorous enthusiasm as they joined in the fun,” I wrote.

Like Independence Day, the Old Harbor Fourth of July bash became a tradition that people could count on. Haakanson died in 2002, but his son, Sven Haakanson, Jr., daughter, Phyllis Clough, and others in the village kept the celebration going, announcing the games with the help of the megaphone.

Because of the Covid-19 crisis, most Old Harbor Fourth of July activities will be canceled this year. (Can you imagine social-distancing while going at it in a boxing match?)

However, the Blessing of the Fleet will go on as scheduled, said Clough, who has been honored to continue her dad’s efforts to make the Fourth of July the most festive event of the year. The main goal of the event is to make everyone happy, said Clough.

I think President Adams would approve.

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