July 23, 2021
Tomorrow is the 24th of July. That probably doesn’t mean much to most folks – just another summer day. But, if like me, you grew up in Utah, it was always one of the most important days of the year. The 24th of July, or Pioneer Day as it’s mostly called nowadays, was the day the Mormons first arrived in Utah in 1847. As the story goes, the leader of the Mormons, Brigham Young, crawled out of his sickbed just as his wagon crested the last hill before entering the valley and proclaimed “This is the Place.” The story is probably not accurate, but the founding of Utah did begin on that day.
Some of my ancestors were among those early entrants to Utah and some came much later. Many of my ancestors were Mormons, but other were not. None of that mattered to any of us when it came to celebrating the 24th of July. It was a big deal for all of us. As I recall my childhood, the entire summer revolved around the 24th. There were parades, rodeos, musical performances, picnics, trips to the local amusement park and fireworks. While we celebrated the 4th of July like all Americans, the 24th was bigger and better, in our opinion.
In my family, the centerpiece of the 24th was attending the parade in Ogden. The day of the parade always began in the same way. Dad and we kids were all excited and ready to go as soon as he finished his milking chores (we lived on a dairy farm) in the morning. Mom, on the other hand, always put up her usual reasons why we shouldn’t go. It would be too hot; we could just listen to the parade on the radio (or later watch it on television); the parade route would be too crowded to see over anyone’s head and on and on.
When I was young, I was always worried that Mom would prevail, and we wouldn’t get to go to the parade, but that never happened. Looking back on it, I wonder how serious Mom’s complaints really were.
Usually, when we got to the parade route, there would be one or more of Mom’s sisters and their families waiting to join us in some pre-determined location. The plans would have been made via telephone at least the night before, so I suspect Mom really always intended to go to the parade. Her objections were just for show and to tease the rest of us.
I’m sure it really was too hot at the parade; July in Utah is always the hottest time of the year, and it never rains then. I can’t say I remember it being too hot; all I remember of the parade is the beauty of the floats and the high school bands marching along in their tall hats. They’re the ones who probably were way too hot since they always wore full uniforms including wool jackets and pants. There were plenty of horses, too – rodeo queens with their tiaras displayed on their cowboy hats, politicians of all stripes looking uncomfortable on their horses and different rodeo-type cowboys swinging their lariats. It was actually a well-organized, professional parade. My only complaint was that it never lasted long enough.
Afterwards, we went home where my grandparents lit a bonfire in their driveway, and we all found suitable sticks for roasting hot dogs and marshmallows. The 24th was also one of the few days when we had soda – big glass bottles of Barq’s Root Beer and Nehi Orange (for my brother who wouldn’t drink carbonated drinks) and small green bottles of 7Up. Mom liked that, but to us kids it was what we got to drink when we were sick – definitely not a treat. We also had Clover Club Potato Chips, made right in our own county. They’re not made any longer, but occasionally I still crave their crispy, salty potato flavor.
At the end of the day, there were always fireworks, which for us meant sparklers. Utah didn’t allow firecrackers, but many folks drove to nearby Evanston, Wyoming for more exotic fare. My folks believed that those kinds of fireworks were too dangerous, so sparklers it was. We didn’t care; chasing each other
In the dark with burning sparklers was plenty exciting for us.
Some years that was the extent of our celebration. Others might see us attending the Ogden rodeo or attending a performance of the outdoor play “All Faces West” which portrayed the Mormon pioneers heading West to Utah. Most years, in the days prior to the 24th, we joined my mother’s family for a picnic and an evening spent racing from ride to ride with cousins at the Lagoon Amusement Park.
I always thought that when I grew up, I’d have a family, and we follow the same 24th of July traditions. It didn’t work out that way, though. By the time I had a family of my own, I didn’t live in Utah so the 24th was just another day. Even when I made a point of visiting my family in Utah on the 24th, it just wasn’t the same. Fewer people seemed to celebrate the holiday; most of my family didn’t even have the day off from work. Plus, my children must have taken after their grandmother because the one time I tried to interest them in a parade, they complained it was too hot and too crowded.
I guess some family traditions aren’t really meant to be passed on. They just don’t stand the test of time. I only celebrate the 24th of July in my memory nowadays.
Researcher/Director at Large