Food, Fistfights & Whiskey: Lancaster’s First Independence Day

As we gather to celebrate Independence Day, it is fun to take a look at how the holiday was celebrated in the past. In this case, I don’t want to look back 30, 40, 50, or even 100 years ago. I want to examine the first-ever Independence Day celebration in Lancaster, which took place over 220 years ago.

Depending on the source, the year of the first celebration was either 1800 or 1802. Historian Charles Goslin believes that 1802 is the more likely date because Lancaster was not laid out until the fall of 1800. However, George Sanderson was an eyewitness to the event and says it occurred in 1800. Either way, it occurred at the beginning of the 19th century.

The location of the celebration is described as being on the west side, outside of the original town of Lancaster laid out by the Zanes. Specifically, on the north side of Lincoln Avenue (then Old Chillicothe Road) across the street from the Augustus Mithoff home. That home still stands today and was owned, for a time, by Darius Tallmadge, the “stagecoach king of Lancaster,” hotel owner, banker, and horse and cattle breeder.

Documents also state that it was held on the Hunter settlement on a knoll. Using these descriptions, we can say that the first Fourth of July celebration in Lancaster was held in the area between present-day Martens Park and Hunter Park.

So, how did they celebrate this holiday? They did so with food, fights, cheers, copper-distilled whiskey, and target shooting.

Baked corn pone in a cast iron skillet.

Baked corn pone in a cast iron skillet.

The food served at the celebration consisted of roasted bear meat, venison, chicken, turkey, vegetables, johnny-cake, and baked pone. Johnny-cake is a type of cornmeal flatbread and baked pone is a type of bread made with corn. Baked pone was considered a staple food of the Thirteen Colonies.

To wash down this food, a barrel of whiskey was present. Rather than serving it in cups, the barrel was stood on end and dippers were provided. The crowd of people were then able to freely drink as often as they wanted using the dippers. They ate and drank without the use of tables, benches, utensils, or plates.

Following the feast, it was time for entertainment.

Activities at the celebration included foot-races, jumping contests, wrestling matches, fist-fights, target practice, and quoit throwing (a game in which a person tries to throw a ring of iron or rope as near as possible to, or directly on, a peg). There was no reading of the Declaration of Independence, patriotic speeches, or pyrotechnic display. Instead, patriotic songs were sung and cheers of “hurray for America” were made in between the activities taking place.

Quoits game - wooden peg with circular pieces.

Quoits game – wooden peg with circular pieces.

The commotion attracted the attention of a traveler headed to the Scioto Valley. He stopped to celebrate with them and, of course, sample the drink that was provided. He told the residents of Lancaster that he was from Virginia and was planning to settle near the Scioto where some of his old neighbors had settled. The residents told the man that the Hocking Valley was superior and he should consider Lancaster as his new home.

Replying that he couldn’t compare the two areas without visiting them both, the traveler stated he was convinced there were just as many “good men” in the Scioto Valley as the Hocking. He further stated that there might be more in the former. In those days, a “good man” meant a man that was physically fit and courageous. This was taken as a challenge by the Lancasterians and it was determined that the matter be settled immediately.

A ring was formed and the traveler, along with a resident selected to fight him, entered. No interference was allowed and both men began to fight. It was described as a stubborn trial in which both men were well pummeled. However, in the end, the traveler acknowledged his defeat and the Lancasterian was victorious. The residents, who were all impressed with his courage, once again invited the man to stay. The man decided that, while he knew little of either valley, the Hocking Valley had more good men residing in it as he cared to encounter and he decided to stay.

The celebration was said to have ended in the mid-afternoon. All of the residents returned to their cabins full of food, whiskey, and patriotism. This included the two combatants who’s names have been, unfortunately, lost to history.

Happy Independence Day!

If you enjoyed this story, read more from Michael Johnson by becoming a supporting member of the Fairfield County Heritage Association. He authors the Association’s quarterly publication which includes stories like this one.

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Michael R. Johnson, marketing director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association based in Lancaster, Ohio.

By Michael Johnson

Lancaster native Michael Johnson is the Marketing Director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association and serves as editor of the Heritage Quarterly – a magazine highlighting local history. Michael is a member of the Sherman Rotary and the Lancaster Fairfield Chamber of Commerce’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee. His bachelor’s degree in history education was earned at Ohio University. Michael is married to Tara Johnson and has two children, Isaac and Mia.