The Fourth of July is always good proof that summer is here—with its picnics, parades and the fireworks that make it the nervous dog’s worst night of the year.

Although the Fourth of July has traditionally been a big deal on Swan’s Island, I should admit upfront that I’ve never been around for one. I head south for my own family’s potato salad and hot dogs, which of course are the best in the world.

Apparently the holiday was once celebrated in a grander style than it is these days. Current islanders can rely on fireworks launched from wharves and a picnic or two. Back in the day, however, people went all out.

My personal favorite stories come from the night before the Fourth. I don’t know if this is an island thing or what, but the evening of July 3rd had all the excitement and good-natured destruction typically associated with Halloween.

People were out and about. Much of the activity was at “the crossroads,” the prominent island location where the one big paved road meets the other big paved road.  

Outhouses were not only tipped over, but also transported. Dorothy Stockbridge laughingly denied her involvement as a teenager:

“I didn’t do it, but I was there!” she said. “I couldn’t tip ’em over—the boys done that. One night they tipped one over and the guy was in the outhouse! Willie Turner. And in the morning there’d be two, three outhouses on the crossroads and an old couch and chair and old bathtub, and, oh, it was terrible!”

Another favorite target was the punts, or small boats, that many families owned. They disappeared and showed up the next morning in various ponds.

Dorothy told me about Elden Colbeth, who was determined to get the better of the pranksters:

“He took his punt home and kept his porch light on all night, and he had his punt tied to his garage. The boys sneaked up somehow and cut the rope on the punt and took it to the Mallye’s Pond. He got up in the morning, he said, ‘Myrtis,’ he said, ‘Those boys have taken my punt again!'”

Starting in 1960 when the ferry service came to the island, the Fourth of July was celebrated annually with a huge picnic. People crowded onto the island from the mainland. They had games, food, crate races (string a bunch of lobster crates into the harbor and see how far you can run along them without falling in), and often baseball or a dance at night.

Sonny Sprague remembers the hard work that went into the preparations:

“It was about three days of preparing for it. Wesley and Norman Staples would go with a wagon of some kind and come back solid full of potatoes, cabbages”¦ used to have about seven or eight hundred pounds of lobsters in advance from Uncle Bill.”

People contributed pies, ice, hoses and whatever else was needed from their own homes. A huge crew of volunteers pulled together to feed the crowd. 

“At four o’clock in the morning I’d be up getting ice from all around town and the chocolate table from Milton Hennigar and Oakley Smith and Johnny Wheaton would be cutting lobsters and Richard Kent would be cooking and Carlisle Staples would be there and Sheldon Carlson would be selling hot dogs, and many more people. It was just a community thing.”

Sonny remembers the picnic as a reunion, as well:

“See, back then there was a lot of people who had left the island, and the ferryboat showed up so, ‘God, let’s go back to Swan’s Island.’ So on the Fourth of July they would come back. That’s where they’d meet.  Oh, there was more people hugging and laughing.”

Community spirit aside, I’m glad I don’t have an outhouse to keep track of. 

Kaitlin Webber is an Island Fellow on Swan’s Island through AmeriCorps and the Island Institute working with the Swan’s Island Historical Society.