Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Manchester revels in Semi-Centennial Celebration of 1896
Newly elected Mayor of Manchester William C. Clarke's most immediate and pressing task in 1895 was to lead the effort to organize a suitably grand celebration of Manchester's Semi-Centennial.
In 1896, Manchester would mark the 50th anniversary of receiving its city charter in 1846, and there was a lot to celebrate. Manchester had developed into a prosperous and thoroughly modern municipality due to the brilliant plans set in motion by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company.
Thousands of people had come here to work in the textile plants and machine shops in the company's millyard along the Merrimack River. The growing city also provided endless opportunities in many other fields of endeavor. The Clarke family's publishing business, founded by newspaper legend John B. Clarke, was just one of a thousand success stories — big and small — that made up the narrative of this Victorian-era boomtown.
Mayor Clarke served as the chairman of the planning effort. Under his oversight, several large committees were established to organize every aspect of the celebration. This included the parade, decorations, music, school exercises, printing, athletics, and the historical exhibits committees. Other committees took care of transportation, tents and general entertainment, and another was charged with overseeing the finances. The roster of committee members was a "who's who" of the most important men in Manchester society. For example, former Governor Moody Currier served on the literary exercises committee and local department store owner James W. Hill was on the finance committee.
The only committee that included women was the historical exhibits committee, where several of the prominent matrons served. Their inclusion was likely due to the participation of artist Henry W. Herrick on the committee. He was a long-time champion of equal opportunity for women in the arts. He had taught in a women's art school early in his career, and had worked alongside talented women in the engraving trade.
The city set aside $2,000 for the event. According to the commemorative book published by the John B. Clarke Company in 1897, the organizers realized "…that a proper observance of the celebration befitting the enterprise and public spirit of the Queen City would require the expenditure of more money than that appropriated by the city…" A fund drive was held, with the goal of obtaining $5,000 in contributions. In the end, $5,290.75 was donated by local companies and private citizens. From these funds all the bills were paid, with $300 to spare.
The Semi-Centennial Celebration took place on September 6, 7, 8 and 9, 1896. September 6 was a Sunday, so the focus that day was naturally on religion. At least 17 Protestant and Catholic churches held morning services to commemorate the city's 50th anniversary, with special sermons in tune with the occasion. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Manchester, Reverend Denis Bradley's preached at St. Joseph's Cathedral, "Thou shalt sanctify the fiftieth year and shalt proclaim remission to all the inhabitants of the land, for it is the year of jubilee." Several Protestant ministers spoke about the history of their own churches and religious denominations, and others enlightened their congregations with messages of civic responsibility. This included The Reverend T.M. Davies of the Westminster Presbyterian Church who preached on "Citizenship, its advantages, its perils, and responsibilities."
An inter-denominational gathering was held in the evening under a massive tent erected in an open field. Despite rainy weather, nearly 4,000 people attended. The orator was The Reverend Dr. William J. Tucker, president of Dartmouth College. Reverend Tucker had served as a Congregational pastor in Manchester after his ordination in 1867, and was well loved by the people of this city and by the people of New Hampshire. The title of his speech was "The Spiritual Life of the Modern City." He started his philosophical oration with the words, "The modern city, though founded in industrialism or built upon commerce, and set toward every form of material development, has its spiritual life, otherwise its history were quickly told in figures and statistics." And later in the speech he said, "If the spiritual has any real power, it will be able to live in the midst of the material, working in and through it all, and directing it to higher ends."
Next Week: A Valley Cemetery Story — Mayor William C. Clarke's Semi-Centennial of Manchester continues.
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org