One of the city’s oldest residents – John Hawks – was asked by a Scranton Times reporter in 1916 to share with readers how he started the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in 1855 in Slocum Hollow.
Hawks told of how they had to make an American flag for that first parade and defend it from the Know-Nothings.
Here is the complete story from the Scranton Times from March 16, 1916.
First St. Patrick’s Day Parade here was in 1855; John Hawks tells of early celebrations
Sturdy Irish of old day honored memory of patron saint despite insults and jeers – Old Germans joined in early parades. Hawks made cane for Lincoln.
“Bless your heart, that’s one thing I know perhaps as much about as any man here, if not more,” proudly exclaimed John Hawks, one of Scranton’s grandest of her grand old men, when asked today at his home, 1248 Providence Road, to tell a little of the history of St. Patrick’s Day parades in this city in the early days.
Now in his eighty-fifth year, the youngest man for his years here with exception probably William H. Richmond, but none other, John Hawks’ gray eyes lit up with the fire of half a century ago and he started into relate how St. Patrick’s Day was observed here the first time in local history – 1855 – and then on through succeeding years, adding such highlight effect to history as how he mapped out the first American flag borne in a parade here and how it came to pass that a cane he had whittled for pastime was regarded appropriate enough for a present to Abraham Lincoln and the beautiful letter he received in return from Lincoln, acknowledging receipt and complimenting John Hawks for his artistic skill, his patriotism and consideration. It was a letter that one should want to cherish and the sparkle in John Hawks’ eyes dimmed as he admitted that that letter has been lost in the run of years, but lost only after scores had seen and read it and papers throughout the country had copied it in telling of the cane presented to Lincoln by a patriot in Slocum Hollow, Pennsylvania.
Fished and Hunted here
“I have told those stories so often in lectures to societies around the county that most every person has heard them,” he began, “because I’ve been living here seventy-five years, and was about the only boy in Slocum Hollow, long before there was any sign of a city here, when the place was a woods. Sure I fished and hunted and killed game right here in the city back in the 40’s. All I could was hunt and fish. I had no companions, and he went onto tell how his father came into this vicinity in 1833, and how his own memory goes back clearly to when he was five years old and three years later when the family moved, his father to build the blast furnace, the one industry that marks the inception of the city.
“But there was never a St. Patrick’s day celebration here until I got one started, that was in 1855. There weren’t enough Irishmen here or descendants of Irishmen to make a celebration,” he added, by way of explaining the delay to 1855. “I could count all the Irish families on the tips of my fingers. There weren’t many of any kind here,” he went on to make the situation plainer. “There was nothing here, no schoolhouse,no church, no streets, no buildings that you could call buildings, a few scattered houses, so there was nobody to parade on St. Patrick’s Day.
“It was along in the early part of 1855 that I decided that there ought to be some kind of a St. Patrick’s Day celebration here, because I used to hear my father tell stories of Ireland, although I was a baby a year old when my parents came over here. He used to tell how the French landed in Ireland and how before that you couldn’t wear a shamrock on your coat or in your hat and he had so many stories of that kind that I couldn’t help picking up a lot of history about Ireland. So, along in January and February of ‘55, I decided we’d have a St. Patrick’s celebration.”
First American Flag
“There were then maybe forty or fifty young Irish fellows in the hollow and we started to prepare for the parade. I was pretty handy, and I started making staffs and spearhead out of wood and wooden battleaxes and then we got the girls who knew something about sewing and dressmaking to make scarfs and rosettes and we had about everything but an American flag. There weren’t any trains entering Slocum Hollow and we had no way to get an American flag from New York. So I decided that we’d have to make a flag out something.”
“We had the Company store on the upper end of Lackawanna avenue,” went on Mr. Hawks, “but it wasn’t a road.” And right here he told of how the first American flag carried in any parade here, and probably the first flag in the Hollow came to be made here with John Hawks in the role of the Betsy Ross of the community.
“I went up to Mr. Platt in the Company store and bought a lot of the finest muslin and enough of red to make stripes two and a half or three inches wide, and a piece of blue, and then I got a quilting frame and stretched the muslin over it, and then slit the stripes of red and pinned them to the muslin, and then had one of the girls handy with the needle, sew the stripes to the white, and insert the stars in the blue. It was an excellent flag, well made. First to make sure that it wasn’t too heavy for the staff that was to be carried in the parade. I strung it to another staff that he had put on the schoolhouse – the schoolhouse was what’s now Moosic Street, then Shanty Hill – and there it fluttered in the breeze. You could see it from the Company store.
Fight over the flag
“Well, sir, the morning for the parade,” Mr. Hawks went on, now warmed to his subject, “we got about one hundred young fellows out, a lot of them boys, and there were enough spearheads and staffs and battle axes to go round, and you could see them from in front of the Company store glittering in the sun, and the flag, too, flying in the breeze. A lot of wood choppers from New Jersey had meantime came here to work in the blast furnace and the rolling mill and we were always fighting. We called them Knownothings in those days.”
“What’s that gang doing over there,” said some of them, seeing the battle axes and the pikes, they thought they were real.”
“ ‘That’s Johnny Hawks’ said Mr. Platt at the Company store, “He’s hoing to give a parade. He’s just made that flag.” Next thing a big gang of those Jersey woodchoppers came over to us, we were on the old Orchard ground. Spruks is there now – and one of them stepped up to me.”
“ ‘What’s that d — n rag doing here?’” he asked. “ ‘That’s no d — n rag.’ I told him, that’s the American Flag, the stars and stripes.’ “
“ ‘Well, I’m going to tear that d — n rag down,’ “ he said.
“ ‘Don’t call that a d — n rag,’ I said,’and you won’t pull it down. If you try to , I’ll shoot you dead on the spot. He didn’t make a move. One of his crowd then told him that he was going too far, that he wouldn’t pull down the flag, and he didn’t,” said John Hawks with an emphatic nod. “He didn’t. Then we started the parade.
Their Four-Piece Band
“We had no regular band. We had four pieces. We had one flute, a fife, a snare drum and a bass drum and we marched from Shanty Hill to what is now Lackawanna Ave it was road then and down to Amsden’s corner – that’s where the new bank building is now at Washington Avenue and there a crowd of them Knownothings was waiting for us. Some of them came out and blocked our way.
“ ‘What do you mean by marching this way and making so much noise.’” Said one of them to me. I was the grand marshal and I was carrying an old cavalry sword and I was prouder than Napoleon crossing the Alps. I drew the sword and that fellow leaped backward to the curb and he didn’t say another word. Our parade marched on to Hyde Park and back again without spilling a drop of blood. That was our first St. Patrick’s Day parade.”
From 1855 there was parade here every St. Patrick’s Day with John Hawks as grand marshal until 1876 and took his place in the ranks in the subsequent parades.
The parade of 1856 was another pretentious demonstration embellished with uniforms of variety. “You see,” Mr. Hawks continued, “in those days there were a lot of Germans living in Shanty Hill and the Germans joined with us in that parade. Captain Robinson – he started a brewery here- had a company of Yagers and they had old German army uniforms. We got a lot of uniforms of the Continental army kind and old muskets that had been used in the Mexican war. We gave the Germans the place of honor in the line. I was the grand marshal that year too. But it was the next year we had the trouble.”
The St. Patrick’s Day parade of 1857 was a gala event in the Hollow’s life, according to Mr. Hawks. Captain Robinson and his German Yagers were still part and parcel of the celebration and besides, Professor Burger had organized a band of twenty-four pieces for the parade and again, with enough uniforms to fit our two military companies, more than 1,000 paraders, Irish and Germans, assembled on the Orchard ground to do honor to Ireland’s patron saint with allied effort.
Effigy of St. Patrick
“We marched down into Ward Street – I had to ride a horse that year to get back over the line to give my order – and when he got to about where the Cannon Ball station now stands, we got word that they had an effigy of St. Patrick handing in front of the Renshaw’s Store. Renshaw was great Democrat in those days, and he had a flagpole in front of his place. It was a few doors east of Penn Aveune. We had a council of war, myself and Captain Robinson, when we got the word they had an effigy of St. Patrick hanging in the street.”
“ That’s going to come down,” I said to Robinson. “It’s got to come down or the town will come down. We’ll never march under such a vicious, insulting thing as that” I said. “It must be down before we get there or the town will come down.” We had halted. I was waiting for Robinson to suggest something.
“Well, we can wait till we come up to it and shoot it down,” suggested the leader of the German legion, whereas the command forward was given by Grand Marshal Hawks and with fixed bayonets the German Yagers and the Continental Blues swept into Lackawanna Avenue, their line extending clear across the thoroughfare and on they marched to Renshaw’s store. Before the head of the procession, cavalry sword drawn, had come up to Renshaw’s the effigy was down, cut down.
“Now, that was a mean insulting thing,” said Mr. Hawks. “They had gotten an old suit of clothes and stuffed it with straw and then beaded a lot of potatoes on a string and threw that over the shoulders of the stuffed suit – the potatoes were meant for a rosary beads, we knew that – besides they had a codfish hung up, too. They had a rope across the avenue from Renshaw’s flag pole to the building on the opposite side, and they had the effigy on the rope and the codfish.
Squire Newman Saved the Day
“We knew where the codfish come from. Renshaw was the only man that sold that kind of codfish, and it came from his store. But anyway, we had one official here, the only official of any kind – Squire Newman – and he cut down the rope to prevent trouble. We’d never have walked under the effigy. We had 1,000 men and those Germans were all big, fine looking men and Captain Robinson felt as sore about the insult as I did. He wanted to shoot it down if it wasn’t down when we got there and whoever had put it there had heard that it would come down. And Squire Newman, a good man, prevent a lot of trouble.”
After that incident the St. Patrick’s day parade became an institution with John Hawks as it grand marshal. There were no more disturbances. Occasionally the marchers might hear a few jeers and insults, but the man making the remarks always kept himself covered. “And, besides,” said Mr. Hawks, “the size of the procession was larger each succeeding year, and we had enough men in line to discourage any attempt to break up the parades. I remember that we got a banner with picture of St. Patrick on it for the official emblem of the occasion. I paid $50 to have it made in Carbondale. When the Knownothings saw that banner they didn’t know what to think of it. Some of them said they’ll bring the pope of Rome over here. But we had to no more trouble. In 1865 we had an organized society called the St. Patrick’s Society. In the first few years the marchers were all volunteers.”
Mr. Hawk’s Versatility
Having related his story of the St. Patrick Day celebration of sixty years ago, Mr. Hawks talked on mentioning among other thing how he has been a bricklayer, carpenter, plasterer, architect, amateur actor, lecturer, moulder, organist, written poetry, enacted a role of Robert Emmet here the first time ever, voted for Buchanan – “Jimmy” Buchanan – he called him – voted the Democratic ticket since 1856, and lastly, how he happened to make a cane for Abraham Lincoln, though he did not know he was making it for Lincoln at the time.
“I was a Douglas man, and did not vote for Lincoln, but when Lincoln was elected and war came I was among the first men drafted and sent to Camp Curtin in Harrisburg.” And the he told about the cane.
He was working for the government on the conduit to convey water from the from the Potomac to Georgetown. Returning home that fall while passing through Maryland he cut down three or four young cedar trees and bundling them up carried them along. Out of employment and restless he was sitting around the house one day and he began whittling one of the cedars.
“The air was then all war talk and secession and slavery and I sat there whittling and thinking, and first thing the idea struck me to carve a cane filled with funny figures. The cedar was filled with knots.
What He Carved On the Cane
“First I carved an eagle about the size of a sparrow for the handle and in one claw I had Jeff Davis with the eagle gripping him by the seat of his breeches with one claw and a sheaf of wheat in the other claw. I carved at the other knots and then whittled a serpent winding around the cane. I whittled five heads on five knots and worked out the features of Jeff Davis, Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Longstreet and I’ve forgotten who the fifth man was and with the serpent joining the five heads. I made the connection signify the five-headed serpent of rebellion.”
“I was afterwards asked to put the cane on exhibition in Fuller’s store window. While it was there, plans were made for a delegation going to Washington to attend the inauguration. Somebody suggested that the delegation should carry some gift from Slocum Hollow to the president and I was asked if I’d mind giving them the cane to present to Lincoln.”
“Why, Lincoln wouldn’t take that.” I said. “But if you want it take it. If he doesn’t accept it bring it back. Three day later I got a letter from Abraham Lincoln thanking me for the gift and complimenting me for my patriotism and saying that he would remember me all the days of his life. I carried that letter with me when I went to Camp Curtin, but, in moving around from from one house to another, the letter was lost or torn up by the children. But enough men had seen it, and the newspapers had copies of it. All the Philadelphia papers, McClures’ paper for one, had all about the cane that was presented to the president.
Wonderful Change in the City
“I could talk all day about the old times,” he said in closing. “Things are different now. I like to go up on the hill here and look around and see all the city, how it is built up and the great population living here now and think of the few here when I was boy. But I’m beginning to get old. I won’t go to the St. Patrick’s Day dinner. I’m going to make a speech at an entertainment here in North Scranton St. Patrick’s night.” And then rising with the agility of amen of fifty, this pioneer of eighty-five, straight as a soldier and hand as steady as steel, picked up a little pamphlet and turned to a page of verse written by himself under the caption “Scranton in 1840” –
We had no schools or churches then, no big building for to tax.
Nor politicians to lead us on, Or behead us with their axe.
To fish and hunt was any delight, The bears and deer to follow,
For the people were all happy then, in the day of Slocum Hollow.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day,
Brian Fulton has been the librarian at The Times-Tribune for the past 14 years. On his blog, Historically Hip, he writes about the great concerts, plays/musicals and celebrity happenings that have taken place throughout NEPA. He is also the co-host of the local history podcast, Historically Hip. He competed and was crowned grand champion on an episode of NPR quiz show “Ask Me Another.” Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9140; or @TTPagesPast