It was a solemn and historic occasion, but all we remember about it today is that some bozos showed up and made fun of everybody.
The event was the Fourth of July 1876 ceremonies held in Santa Rosa. “At an early hour the streets were thronged with carriages, horsemen and well dressed and happy looking men and women,” reported the town’s Sonoma Democrat. The parade formed on Third street; near the head was the Santa Rosa Brass Band and judges and dignitaries in carriages (including Bear Flag veterans with their famous flag). In the parade were also carts or displays representing local businesses, among them a wagon loaded with coal from the Taylor Mountain Coal Mine. “The procession marched through the principal streets which were gaily decorated with flags,” the paper continued, before returning to the grandstand on Santa Rosa’s plaza.
Gaye LeBaron wrote about the notable event that happened that day in “Santa Rosa: A Nineteenth Century Town,” but the version that appeared in her 1998 column was a bit more concise:
The Squeedunks made their first appearance in Santa Rosa in 1876, on the occasion of the Centennial Independence Day. When the county’s honored “First Citizen,” General Mariano Vallejo, ended his long oration (in Spanish, with a translator) and the formal portion of the celebration drew to a close, a band of masked men in outrageous costumes seized the podium and began a mock-heroic “Oh Ration,” an extemporaneous and outrageous send-up of the venerable Vallejo’s speech.
It’s a fun story and often retold – except none of it happened quite that way.
This was not the debut of the “Squeduncques” at a Santa Rosa Fourth of July celebration but at least their third appearance. Their “comical uniforms” were mentioned in a review of their 1874 showing so yeah, it’s probably safe to assume they were also dressed up two years later, although nothing about it was mentioned. Those are quibbling points, tho.
But in no way did they seize the stage following Vallejo’s speech to ridicule him. They were a scheduled part of the program at the end of the celebration, which wrapped up with the Squeedunks presenting the mayor with a wooden sword as “the thanks of every member of this beer destroying gang.” And before they went on stage they presented their own parade which mocked that morning’s procession. Where earlier the Sonoma Democrat was carting around a small printing press turning out programs for the day’s events on the fly, for example, they had the “Dum Oh Krat Steam Press.” Once they were at the podium they continued making fun of the original program with “intejuicery” (introductory) remarks, a “poim” (poem) and “Oh Ration,” which was a sendup of the town’s foibles and failings. All of this is transcribed below – complete with comic spellings as they appeared in the newspaper – but here’s a sample:
Look at our big brick depot, that we haven’t built yet nor never will. Look at our grand school houses for the edification of the hoodlums of generations yet unborn. Look at all these and say are we not mighty in ourmightiness? Then let the proud eagle squawk; let the great American Jack bray and proclaim in stentorian tones “Erin go unum, E pluribus Bragh.”
Nor did General Vallejo even speak at the event. As described in the paper, he sat onstage as his speech was read by Charles E. Pickett, a well-known (and somewhat notorious) orator.1 The Sonoma Democrat didn’t indicate whether it was in Spanish or English although it was likely the latter, as the paper commented the speech “was listened to with deep attention by all.” The entire address in English appeared in the Democrat the following week.
Even delivered in English by a popular orator the Vallejo speech was a real stemwinder, which probably added to the anticipation for the Squeedunks’ part of the show – the paper reported before they appeared the large crowd “seemed by this time to have grown a thousand or two stronger.” It’s easy to understand their appeal; much of the irreverent humor still holds up today, 140 years later – and works particularly well if you can imagine Groucho Marx reading it. For some in the audience, however, their antics probably had a nostalgic appeal; the Squeedunks were part of a long American tradition on the East Coast better known as the “Fantastics.”
The Fantastics – sometimes “Fantasticals” – began in Colonial times (and can even be traced farther back to British mumming) were mainly young men dressing up, sometimes in women’s clothes or wearing blackface while noisily mocking propriety and figures of authority. Think of it as trick-or-treating for adults, not children, and it happened at Thanksgiving or Christmas or any other holiday except Hallowe’en. Also: They wanted you to give them booze, not candy. More about the origins can be read here.
Needless to say, our more sober ancestors were not approving of their young men carousing drunkenly in costumes four or five times a year. (Did I mention firing guns in the air was also a big part of the custom?) Apparently starting in the 1830s, restrictions began to be imposed limiting the partying to the Fourth of July and requiring the costumed revelers be enrolled in some sort of organized group. The earliest example of this I can find is an ad in the June 27, 1839 Baltimore Sun that calls for members of the “Eagle Fantastical Club” to attend a meeting for the upcoming parade.
For about twenty years on either side of the Civil War, parades of Fantastics were to be found all over the East; there’s a mention from 1843 which suggests the Fantastics were long part of the Fourth of July celebrations in Maine and up to the start of the war their shenanigans were particularly popular in Pennsylvania and Maryland, Georgia and South Carolina. From the New York Sun, November 27, 1885:
Fantastic processions burst out all over the town in unusual abundance and filled the popular eye with a panorama that looked like a crazy-quilt show grown crazy and filled the popular ear with the din of thumping drums and blaring trumpets. Thirty-six companies of fantastics had permits to march around making an uproar, and they did it with great success. Local statesmen went around.with the down-town paraders and helped them whoop things up. There were lots and lots of fantastics who hadn’t any permit, and who didn’t care either. They were the thousands and thousands of small boys who put on their sisters’ old dresses, smeared paint on their faces, pulled on red, yellow, brown, black, and indiscriminate wigs, and pranced round their own particular streets, without the least fear of police interference.
Why our local “patriotic hoodlums” chose to call themselves “Squeduncques” instead is not known for certain, although in the early 1870s a squeedunk was the name of a homemade noisemaker that made a particularly horrific screeching sound.2
The Squeedunk tradition continued in Sonoma county for decades, spreading to Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Cloverdale and other communities. The last great ballyhoo in Santa Rosa was in 1908 (see “SQUEEDUNKS ON PARADE“) but attempts at revivals popped up occasionally in later years. How sad to have lost the custom of celebrating our old bums, lunch eaters, and scalawags.
1 Charles E. Pickett was then 56 years old and well known as an eccentric who claimed his profession as “philosopher.” Despite a complete lack of legal training he was long a gadfly concerning the state supreme court, insisting the system of selecting judges was corrupt because the governor could appoint someone to fill a vacant seat until the end of the six year term of office. Thus a justice who was elected in 1870 and died or resigned the following year would be replaced with a politcal appointee until 1876, despite the opportunity for voters to choose a new justice in two general elections during that span of time. (Or at least, that’s my reading of the confusing rules – see more details here.) In Pickett’s view this meant the entire court should be impeached and as a new session began in August, 1874, he stormed the bench during opening ceremonies and took a seat himself. An uproar ensued and he was ejected, fined, and served over a year in jail for his unusual contempt of court.
2 Squeedunk (usually spelled Squedunk) came to be used as a joke town name, similar as Podunk, Skunktown and many others. Sometimes it was meant as the name of a place where backwoods yokels lived, othertimes it was just the name of a a hypothetical town. See: H. L. Mencken, The American Language, 1936. In the early 1870s, however, a squedunk was the name of a popular homemade noisemaker with a teeth-rattling sound created by drawing a violin bow or a waxed string on the rim of a tin can. Thus by calling themselves Squeedunks, the joke could have been either proclaiming themselves to be proudly “backwards country folk” or intending to be really, really annoying. Or both.
The Squeduncques, a distinguished band of imps, devils, patriotic hoodlums and screachers, will parade the streets of Santa Ross on the Fourth of July.– Russian River Flag, July 2, 1874
…The fantastical display of the Squeduncques, which took place in the afternoon, drew to their stand, at the Court House, a vast assemblage. Their officers were: Captain, George Dunnegan; President of Day, D. H. Shahan; Orator, M. S. McClaire; Poet, L. W. Boggs; Reader, T. Woodward. Their burlesques, local hits and comical uniforms created shouts of laughter, and added much to the pleasures of the day. The Squeduncques were generally pronounced a success…– Sonoma Democrat, July 11, 1874
CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION.Santa Rosa, July 4th, 1876.Oration by hos. H. Burke — Historical Address by Gen. M. G. Vallejo – Poem by F. M. Dimmick — Bear Flag Men – Veterans — Squeduncques — Grand Sword Presentation to Mayor Neblett
The celebration of the Centennial Fourth of July in the city of Santa Rosa was one of the grandest demonstrations ever witnessed in the county…
At the close of the oration Mayor Neblett announced that Gen. M. G. Vallejo had arrived on the morning of the fourth in Santa Rosa, having concluded to accept the invitation of the committee sent from Santa Rosa some days previously to invite him to deliver his historical address here, the managers of the Sonoma valley celebration having concluded to omit this feature from their published programme. The large audience hailed the General’s advent [illegible line of microfilm] with much enthusiasm. His well prepared history of the early settlements of the north side of the bay of San Francisco, and other incidents, was read by Mr. Chas. E. Pickett of the city of San Francisco, a pioneer of 1842, was listened to with deep attention by all. At his close three cheers for the General were called for and loudly given. This instructive, graphic and exact historical sketch, with characteristic comments by the author, will appear in the weekly issue of the DEMOCRAT.
At four o’clock in the afternoon the ancient and honorable order of Squeduncques suddenly made their appearance. The crowd which was immense in the morning seemed by this time to have grown a thousand or two stronger and greeted the appearance of the Squeduncques with cheers and shouts of laughter. They were headed by the old He Sque Dunk as Grand Marshal, and he was followed by the Drum Corps, who discoursed strains of discordant music which the pen of no living man can fully do justice to. Suffice it to say that the music department was a most distracting success. After the band came a line of vehicles which looked as though they once belonged to Noah’s family and had seen rough usage since his death. These were drawn by horses who had the appearance of being in their Centennial year and for a long time strangers to oats and corn. Then came burlesques on the Water Company, the Dum Oh Krat Steam Press, the Fire Companies, the New Depot, the Street Sprinkler and other things; which we find we have not descriptive powers sufficient to do justice to and therefore cannot attempt it. The procession was followed by large crowds and cheered all along the route. When the pavilion was reached and the Officers of the Day, Orator, Poet and Reader, accompanied by the Drum Corps ascended the platform, the rush and jam of that vast crowd to get near was awfully sublime. The intejuicery [sic all misspellings below] remarks of the President of the Day, the Poim the Reading of the Declamation, the Oh Ration, and theGRAND PRESENTATI0N
Of a magnificant sword (wooden) to his Honor Mayor Neblett, who was called to the stand. The grand gyascuius of the Squedunques then addressed him as follows:
Most potent, grave and reverend Seignor. Oh, thous noblest Roman of them all. Oh, ubiquitous chieftain of all patriotic emblems that adorn our American Eagle domain. Open your port-holes and hearken to the words that will immortalize you forever.
For over nine million years it has been the custom of this lunch destroying band ever to recognize merit in the human family. Our four fathers, ants and sisters, were celebrated for a looseness in this disgusting familiarity of Freedom.
For many sleepless nights we have watched the bursting character of your patriotic bosom. We have seen it swell–heave and pad out with a grandeur which few bosoms can ever expect to reach.
For tendering us the use of this lumber pile, and for aiding us in the rescue of our hungry recesses, by the donation of the sum of one hundred dollars, accept the thanks of every member of this beer destroying gang.
We are overflowing with gratitude but we can beer it all times. In order to make a proper showing of our inside feelings towards you, we present you with this beautiful sword. In other hands a club of this character would prove a very dangerous weapon. May you never entertain suicidal notions, for it won’t do to get reckless in order to provide free rides for old bums.
Take it–Hang it up in the cellar where it can never rust, nor become mortified by bad use. And when your beaming head shall have assumed the radiance of a white-wash bucket, and when telegraphing shall have been supplanted by the lightning speed of Fortson’s street railroad, may you be rolled up in the emblems of eternal ease, surrounded by limburger cheese, and beer, and with this shining blade buckled to your majestic form may you march on to Fame and Glory, and find sweet repose in the happy hunting grounds of our Honorable Order.
[ .. non-Squeedunk description of fireworks and late dinner ]– Sonoma Democrat, July 8, 1876SQUEDUNCQUE OH! RATION
FELLOW SQUEDUNCQUES: One hundred years ago to-day the booming of patriotic cannon awaked from their heroic slumbers a band of ancient Squedunques. That Cannon has never ceased to boom from that day to the present. You hear it now, you have heard it all day.
Why, Fellow Squedunques, is all this grand parade? Why all this vast assemblage of old bums, lunch eaters, and scalawags? Why all this tootin of horns banging of drums and squallin of “nest hiders?” It is, my fellows in iniqnity, to remind us of the fact that he who fit and run away has lived to fite another day.
Yes, my Fellow Dunks, we have cause to squelch over our misdeeds. Aye, and in Santa Rosa, too.
“For not a town go far and near,
That does not find a rival here!
I ask you, Squedunques, are we not great in our greatness? Compare us today with Santa Rosa one hundred years ago. Look at these sombrero oaks, which within the hundred years from little acorns grow. Look at these beautiful maidens who a hundred years ago were clad in homespun linsey and tow linen. How are they now? Wrapped in silk and satins from the Injins, bedecked with laces from Crapean and Deutchland adorned with gold and silver from Som Evaders, pinned back till the hump raises on their backs equal to the Camelias of Arabia. Look at our farms where a hundred years ago, notight was heard but the war whoop of the Digger and the wild screech of the Coyote, now blossoming and blooming with mustard and dog fennel. Look at our bankin institutions. There’s the Anti Roses Bank where every Squedunque can borrow all he wants, if he leaves two dollars in the place of every one he borries. Then there’s the Shavings Bank with millions in it saving up for the widders and orphins of deceased Squedunques, to be divided a hundred years from to-day. Then there’s Long Pillars’ Pharaoh bank that declares a divy every night, if you only copper the loser and go straight up on the winner. Ain’t that improvement?
Then look at our young bucks, gay fellers with kid gloves and high-toned mustaches–they are away up. They are all great and grand, but each one presents some splendid exemplification of some singular qualification. One, a perfect Dick Nailer, fascinates his lady love by simply stroking her hair until in ecstacy exclaims, “Oh, how sweet!” While the Spring Valley man contents himself with playing with cotton pads while his dulcina holds the reins in an afternoon ride. Ain’t that fastness? But, feller Squedunques, that is not the climax of our progress. Look at the great financial ability we display! A common weaver, without a loom, without any filling, without any warp, comes to our town, opens an ox-eyed-dental, wears a big bonanner and takes in the keenest and shrewdest mercadores of the town, even the Maccaroni and Crown Princes could not get away with him; even the great Southdown who for 20 years has been chief, and who saved him from the dungeon chains, and assisted him in escaping the wrath of his fellow dunks, cries out, “he [illegible line of microfilm]
Once more: Look at our great array of Policioners and County Deficients, who have entrusted us with their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honors. Don’t they give up the jail keys valiantly and nobly; did they not a few weeks since with pistol and club arrest a powerful gang of marauders, put them in prison and save the life of an innocent criminal? Who cares for $1,500 reward?
Then look at our defences! Don’t we keep a cannon, always loaded full to the ‘nuzzle, parading our streets from rosy morn to dewy eve, guarding the destinies of all good and worthy gin slingers?
But this is not all, old bums! Look at our broad gouge railroads that President Don’t-know-who has built clean through our county and down among the switches and hazel brush to Stumpville, with only $300,000 and the right of way to help him. Look at our big brick depot, that we haven’t built yet nor never will. Look at our grand school houses for the edification of the hoodlums of generations yet unborn. Look at all these and say are we not mighty in ourmightiness? Then let the proud eagle squawk; let the great American Jack bray and proclaim in stentorian tones “Erin go unum, E pluribus Bragh.” Happy proud Squedunques the lightning of tarantula juice has yielded to your animosity, let not the temptations of mint juleps and sherrey cobblers seduces you from the paths of sobriety. Fare you well.– Sonoma Democrat, July 8, 1876