by Lou Mancinelli
This summer marks the 95th anniversary of Chestnut Hill’s Fourth of July Celebration at the Water Tower. You’d have to go as far back as the third year of World War I, when the German army failed to defeat France at Verdun – the longest battle of the war – to find a summer without local kids decorating their bikes to commemorate American independence.
This year’s celebration once again begins at 9 a.m. at 118 East Hartwell Lane, headquarters of the Chestnut Hill Bocce Club. Fifty-yard dashes, sock races, face painting, a magic show, pony rides and a petting zoo will take place after the children’s bicycle procession from the club to the Water Tower.
“There will be a few kids hanging around, and then all of a sudden 100 bikes or so will show up,” said Frank Hendrie about the pre-bike procession scene.
Hendrie has been raising money for the celebration for the past 30 years, as well as for other local organizations in the past, such as the Chestnut Hill Youth Sports Club.
A free hot dog and hamburger lunch, with Jack and Jill ice-cream cups for desert, kicks off at noon, as is tradition. Also at noon, members of the Bocce Club welcome members of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Pennsylvania State Council Post 590, to the Water Tower, after their appearance in the Glenside Fourth of July Parade, accompanied by a Humvee and chopper. Afterwards, the vets will follow members of the Bocce Club back to their headquarters for an open house and barbeque, Hendrie said.
While the Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy Business Men’s Association had sponsored the event for 65 years, members of the Bocce Club took over the tradition in 1981 when Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy began to each develop their own business associations.
It was four-weeks before the annual Independence Day celebration in 1981 when Bocce Club members stepped in to fill the void left by the dissolution of the Business Men’s Association.
Local residents George “Rube” Brindisi, Sonny Intrieri (club president at the time), Frank “Stretch” Hendrie and Jay Overcash led the Bocce Club’s efforts to raise money, garner local business sponsors and put on an event worthy of the nature of the celebration, their children and their community. They handled three months of planning in one month. Now, each, year, Hendrie and his volunteers begin planning three to four months before the event.
“I told them I could get the money, if the club will get behind me,” Hendrie said.
In the years following the Bocce Club’s takeover of the event, Brindisi became “Mr. Fourth of July,” according to a Bocce Club history of its Fourth of July activities. Brindisi spearheaded planning and provided logistics until his death in 1990.
Since then, Hendrie and his “field general,” Tom Beatty, have striven to maintain the tradition. He’s also had assistance from numerous volunteers, including Tim Alexander and treasurer Dan Compton, who has helped for the past 30 years.
“It’s really a wholesome, complete family event,” said Beatty, who added that it was the community feeling that inspired him to be part of the celebration despite the fact he does not have children. Beatty helps round-up and direct volunteers and solicit donations. “You have people show up for the magic show who haven’t had kids in 20 years,” he said.
Years ago, at the 42nd annual July Fourth Celebration, Chestnut Hill festivities included a parade and evening fireworks on the grounds of the former Philadelphia School for the Deaf before a crowd of up to 20,000, according to police estimates as recorded in a 1954 Chestnut Hill Local article.
In 1975, afternoon fun included a Father’s Club All-Star game, followed by an Old Timers softball game. Even volleyball used to be part of the post-parade party.
But in 1981, when the Business Men’s associations parted ways, Hendrie and others still wanted Fourth of July celebrations to continue. He went to Intrieri and said, “We can do this.”
“It’s a great family tradition,” Hendrie said. “I grew up in East Germantown, and you can’t say we had anything like this. When I moved here and experienced the parade, and then when I had kids, I said we have to keep this.”
The Chestnut Hill Business Men’s Association itself was founded early in the 20th century as part of a nationwide movement of businessmen’s associations. Its early members included doctors, lawyers, realtors, contractors and other Hill business owners. The organization began to falter during World War I, added Mt. Airy to its title by the 1940s, and, by the end of the decade, was replaced by the new Chestnut Hill Community Association.
Bocce Club members take pride in hosting the local celebration.
“We sponsor it for the love of it,” the club history says. “We strive to be part of the community, and we take pride in preserving traditions. None of these traditions rises higher than the Fourth of July because it is for the kids. Rube wouldn’t have it any other way.”
With thanks to the Chestnut Hill Historical Society for its help in perusing archival sources.