Submitted by Dexter Historical Society - Mother Nature has several times put a damper on Fourth of July plans in Dexter. Newspaper accounts indicate that the celebrations in 1873 ended damp while 1874 they started that way. Both years featured a full day of events beginning at sunrise with gun salutes and ringing church bells. Around 7:00 am a parade of "Fantastics" headed by the Dexter Cornet Band pranced around town for a couple of hours. As the newspaper said: "There seemed to be old people, young people, male people, female people, wise men and fools" on floats, in carriages and on foot in all manner of costumes, singing, dancing and fiddling."
At ten came the more formal parade with the fire department and the veterans. The fire department consisted of the horse drawn Eagle Engine # 1, the Torrent Engine # 2 and the Union Hook and Ladder with their uniformed companies. The firehouse on Wall Street was then brand new as was the Torrent Engine. The Eagle is the same engine (from 1836) that we still cheer in local parades and contests today. The veteran soldiers parading and presenting an arms drill were mostly from the Civil War – not yet ten years behind them – who knew intimately the reason for celebrating the day.
In 1873 a program of speeches, poems and music was presented in a grove next to lawyer Josiah Crosby's house on Zions Hill. This was followed by a baseball game between the Lightfoots of West Waterville and the White Caps of Dexter. Although the score was 20-9 in favor of the Lightfoots, it was a close fought game and "the best by far that ever was played in Dexter".
In 1874 there were several kinds of races for teen-aged boys. First was a washtub race on the lake; although one contestant had to use a hogshead "as no washtub was ever made that would float his ponderous frame". He came in second nonetheless and won a $2 prize. Next was a sack race on Main Street and a foot race on Church Street, both won by John Morrison (later owner of the Morrison Woolen Mill). Lastly there was a wheel barrow race where the contestants were blindfolded, then had to turn the barrow around three times and head for a stake a few rods distant. Many ended up on the curbstone or elsewhere before Stan Leighton (later manager of the Waterville Trust Co.) won.
Both years the Oriental Dramatic Company gave a program of two plays, a short comedy followed by a farce, to sold-out, standing room only audiences at the Town Hall. This local theater company had begun in 1868 and later reorganized into the Favor Haines Company that continued to entertain Dexter well into the twentieth century. There were fireworks scheduled to follow up on Bryant Hill in front of Captain Bryant's house. In 1873, however a downpour let loose just as the play ended and they had to be postponed until the next night, when there was also a band concert.
The fourth in 1890 was a special one. It featured the dedication of the Civil War Monument that had just been erected in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. The story of Dexter's Civil War Monument has many easily recognizable elements of small town life; arguments among townspeople, lack of cooperation on the part of the weather, and young boy's pranks.
People started talking about having some kind of monument soon after the war but by 1885 the Hiram Safford Post (GAR) had only $100 set aside, with another $125 promised if a monument could be erected within six years. Since it was considered that at least $2,000 would be required, there was a long way to go.
Townspeople were divided as to whether the monument should be a building or a statue. They also had different ideas as to where it should be placed. Many favored a small in-town lot that had been vacant and an eyesore for years. However, purchasing a lot would be an added expense and it was decided to place the monument at the center of Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. All the past commanders of the GAR post were buried nearby and of course ceremonies were held there every Memorial Day.
By 1889 there was $1,000 available and it had been decided to have a statue. The whole monument was to be 24 feet tall, consisting of a six foot six inch soldier standing at parade rest topping a gray granite column decorated with inverted cannon in cut relief resting on a stepped seven-foot base. The local company of Morse & Bridges handled the project, at cost, for a total of $2,500, and the monument was in place in June 1890.
A large committee of prominent townsmen and Civil War veterans worked for several months, planning a suitable dedication ceremony, set for the 4th of July. The guest speaker was to be Major General Oliver Otis Howard, who is not well known now, but was deservedly so then. He was born in Leeds, Me. in 1830 and had family connections to several Dexter residents. He attended Bowdoin College and West Point. Although he lost an arm early in the Civil War he took part at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and was in command of the Army of Tennessee with Sherman on his march to the sea. After the war he was the head of the Freedman's Bureau, trying to deal with the multiple problems of the newly freed slaves. Next he helped found Howard University and was its president for four years. Later he traveled into the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona with only one aide to negotiate a treaty with Cochise. His career was attended by some controversy, often because his strong Christian ethics didn't seem "practical". At the time he came to Dexter he was commander of the Department of the East.
Despite pouring rain on Friday the 4th, trainloads of veterans from throughout the area converged on Dexter. The band played "Hail to the Chief" as the distinguished white haired, full bearded general stepped onto the platform. All adjourned to the Grange Hall for a dinner and then to the Town Hall where the general spoke for over an hour. In the evening there was a special concert, also at the Town Hall.
By the next day, nature had decided to cooperate. A procession consisting of a band, veterans, fire department and carriages of dignitaries moved slowly up the steep hill to the cemetery. There were prayers, the committee officially presented the monument to the town and General Howard spoke earnestly about the "lesson the monument was to be to future generations".
In the evening, the General presented a lecture at the Town Hall on the Battle of Gettysburg using a chalkboard for diagrams. On Sunday morning, he attended the Methodist Church and spoke to the children and in the evening, he shared his religious experiences with those at the Congregational Church.
With this full program, that should surely have been the end of the story. But not in Dexter. Almost immediately grumbling was heard that the monument should not be in such an out of the way spot and again the vacant downtown lot was the favored spot. Town meeting in 1893 approved money to purchase the lot. Many who had contributed to the monument fund specifically to have it in the cemetery thought the town had no right to spend money to do anything else with it. A leading town mill owner, George Amos Abbott, offered to buy a larger in-town lot, where he wanted to build a library for the town, and also have a park there for the monument. He paid $5,000, with an additional $1,000 raised by individual subscription, to meet the $6,000 purchase price; thereby getting the monument downtown without the town having to spend a penny. And still people grumbled – "We want it where it is" or "We want it on the other 1ot". In other words, you can't ever please all the people. However, the soldier did travel down to the library lawn, in October 1894, where he stands today.
Over the years he has been visited up close by some of the town's athletic and venturesome boys, including one who grew up to be a state representative, whose game was to shinny all the way up and put a penny in the barrel of the upturned gun.
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