Robert Eller

“What is so rare as a day in June?” The opening line of James Russell Lowell’s poem began by asking a question that the citizens of Hickory could answer with the “Once-in-Century” celebration they put on downtown. The date of the bash, June 6, 1970, was the culmination of a series of commemorations surrounding the centennial of the city. They had been planning festivities for a long time and when the day arrived, the headline of the paper read, “Nature Smiles on Centennial Day.”

One-hundred (and six months) old, the past was the thing in Hickory that day. As a crowd of thousands came to mark the milestone, folks dress in the clothes they thought befit the wardrobe of their ancestors. Women in petticoated dresses, men in frock coats, red, white, and blue bunting on the buildings marked Union Square as ground zero for all things historical in town. An ad hoc group known as the “Brothers of the Beard” vowed to not shave for three months leading up to the day, as a way to get in touch with their pioneer roots. Reportedly, over 3,500 men participated.

The governor came, the mayor read a proclamation by the president and the merriment was off to a flying start. Nixon, (not personally, it was actually boiler plate language) addressed a letter from the White House that addressed “THE CITIZENS OF HICKORY, NORTH CAROLINA,” yes, all caps. Hey, it was a big day. The memo, dated June 2, decreed, “It is a pleasure for me to send warmest greetings and best wishes to you for a most memorable and happy observance of your community’s one hundredth anniversary.” Never had Hickory experienced a day like that before.

Perhaps President Nixon’s blessing brought out the sun and made for beautiful weather, reminiscent of the Lowell poem, which was quoted. After speeches by local dignitaries, a parade followed with over “200 units, including military groups and several bands.” The spectacle went on for two full hours. You could call it lollipop day in Hickory because it was an ‘all-day sucker.’

Speaking of special food, the cake weighed 50 pounds and was cut by Governor Bob Scott who came for the photo that such events offered. To show that not everything was perfect on that early summer day, somebody misspelled the word “tomorrow” at level four of the five tier cake, topped with the number “100.” Too much celebration? I dunno.

It seemed that almost everything was hitting on the same cylinder that day. Another group, the “Over-80 Senior Citizens” came out to remember when Hickory was just a wee child, though none were old enough to beat the city’s age. They did have one who came close. Dr. George E. Bisanar was born when the town was six-years-old. An alderman from 1907 spoke at the event, too.

“A brilliant sun bathed the festive crowd,” wrote one account, apparently surprised.

They expected worse. Perhaps referring to the 1916 Flood, or the ’40 Flood, or some other pestilence, observers noted, “It seemed that Nature, which in the past hundred years has at infrequent intervals dealt rather rudely with the Catawba Valley area, was smiling.”

They had no way of knowing that Nature would frown on the next big event connected to the age of Hickory. Plans for a 2020 series of activities connected to the sesquicentennial got squashed when Covid shut down an elaborate plan. So raise a glass to Hickory on its 153rd (and six months) anniversary. A sunny June day is the perfect time to make merry about all things historical. Bottoms up!

Photo: Maybe the only miscalculation of the day. But it didn’t make the taste any less sweet. Image courtesy of the Hickory Daily Record.