Imagine a moment that you have been transported back to the mid- to late 1880s. It is time for Morristown’s annual Fourth of July celebration.
Keep in mind, this is long before Morristown took on its current residential, retail and industrial footprint. It was still a railroad town and Main Street was just that – the main street for anything and everything of social or business import to take place. Radio Center was not even a twinkle in the eye of the town leaders of the day, and anything west of downtown was working farmland and mostly uninhabited.
Cherokee Lake did not exist.
As much of society in other places, events such as Independence Day festivities caused the entire community to come into town to see and be seen.
In a column published in the Citizen Tribune in 1999, Howard L. Hill wrote of the parties and parades Morristown enjoyed, including (and this is quoted from Mr. Hill’s article):
For a horse-drawn float in the parade: “All the young ladies were dressed in summer white, wearing huge white hats, over which were draped lavender veils. A white linen sunshade was held by one lady in the front seat and one in the back seat. A young boy in a white coat, with a lavender scrape hanging from his right shoulder across his chest and fastened to his belt, walked at the pony’s head. It was necessary for the boy to control the pony and keep the pony from shying during the parade.”
That must have been a grand sight to behold. I have it all perfectly envisioned in my head.
Thank heavens we’re more than a century removed from what had to be hot, uncomfortable and the source of much gossip to last at least until cooler weather rolled around.
Bring in the modern-day shorts, tank tops, baseball caps and enough sunblock lotion to form an oil slick on the lake.
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in and around Hamblen County, there are lots of memories to choose from of family summer fun which concentrated on both Cherokee Park and Cherokee Lake. That’s where the core of the area’s Fourth of July celebrations took place, and still do.
Lawn chairs, blankets, beach towels and coolers were prepped for this, THE summer event to attend. Camping gear was stowed in campers, and tents were set up at the park campground days, sometimes weeks, prior to July 4. More hot dogs, hamburgers and cold soft drinks were consumed at lakeside picnic spots or on benches just feet away from a vendor than at any time collectively throughout the summer.
It was the height of summer living.
From the 1960s through the 1980s, the entire shebang was organized and managed by the Morristown-Hamblen Rescue Squad, from parking to entertainment to safety to fireworks.
It was free to everyone, and everyone knew it was the best place to be: fresh air, a beautiful park, friends and family all around and good entertainment was the name of the game.
There were boats aplenty enjoying the lake, and at least one year they were lined up for a parade.
One former mayor recalled an Independence Day in which there were so many boats on the lake, he could have “walked on water” from boat to boat because of the sheer number of boats floating side by side.
After a decade’s absence, during which the fireworks were shot from a field between Walters State Community College and College Square Mall, the party returned to Cherokee Park in 1999 to the happy satisfaction of pretty much the entire community.
Mike Walker, sales and marketing director for the Citizen Tribune, was there when the celebration moved back to the park. In fact, he was an instrumental member of the team who got the July 4 back to the park.
“We needed to bring it back, to resurrect it,” Walker recalled.
Those first years back were lean, but a good foundation was being built along the way.
“We used a flatbed truck for performers down in the old bowl (the tree-backed natural stage in the heart of the park),” Walker said. “And we had all local talent in the show.”
He does remember the headaches that came with the joy of the Cherokee Park party.
“The first two years after we got the party back to Cherokee, the exiting traffic was just a nightmare. There had been no traffic plan put into place and people were just going everywhere,” he said. Since then, the Morristown Police Department, Hamblen County Sheriff’s Department and party organizers have worked hand-in-hand to control traffic and prevent major bottlenecks and dangerous travel.
Staying true to the desire to keep the July 4th event at the park – albeit with better traffic flow and control – the search began for bigger entertainment names to draw visitors to the party.
The first? The Drifters, the American doo-wop and R&B/soul vocal group. Others included Doug Stone (the first entertainer to perform in the Citizen Tribune/Jefferson Federal Amphitheater for the Performing Arts in 2004), Exile, Janie Fricke, Shenandoah, Joe Diffey, Ronnie McDowell, Blackhawk and others.
As years progressed, another big draw to the park was the implementation of the Lakeway Idol and Lakeway Idol Jr. competitions, which culminated after rounds of elimination by judges familiar with the music industry in the weeks leading up to the big day. Winners not only received cash prizes but an opportunity for a recording session at an area studio.
No one can mention the Cherokee Park July 4th celebration without the grand finale: the fireworks.
The history of the park party is indelibly linked with the Morristown-Hamblen Rescue Squad not because they control the parking and help with the event, but several squad members have gone through training and become certified as fireworks technicians. A lot of time is put into the planning and execution each year of the 20 to 30 minute sparkling show in the sky.
Walker’s favorite memory of the past celebrations?
“All the smiling faces at the end of the night, especially during the fireworks,” he said.