By Sen. Bill Doyle
Barre was the first community in Vermont to celebrate Labor Day. This took place at the Green Mountain Trotting Park (present location of Spaulding High School) on September 7, 1895. The event was sponsored by the Barre Granite Cutters’ Union. There were many speakers that day, and one prominent speaker spoke in the Italian language.
A Barre newspaper, The Barre City Leader, reported that the park “was well fitted for the occasion with swings and hammocks. There was a large pavilion for dancing with the music being furnished by the Barre Coronet Band. In the morning there was a baseball game between the two strongest teams in the state, followed by a football game. The Barre City Rangers defeated the Montreal Mohawks 6-0.”
“There were several races including a bicycle race, hundred yard dash for boys, a 220 yard dash for men, a girls race under 12, and a women’s race. In addition, there was an apple sack race and a game of quoits which was popular at the time.”
In 1898, the Vermont Legislature made Labor Day a legal holiday. On September 4, 1899, there was a Labor Day celebration at Cherry Dale Park, a trolley stop near the present shopping center on the Barre Montpelier Road. According to The Barre Evening Telegram, special trains brought in a huge crowd of 4,500 people. There was dancing in the large pavilion with popcorn, candy and cigars being sold at a booth. One speaker titled his address, “Labor, Militant and Triumphant.”
Also speaking that day was Rep. George T. Swasey of Barre, who sponsored the Labor Day legislation. Swasey said, “It is a matter of satisfaction to me that I had the honor of introducing the bill in the Vermont Legislature that became law, fixing the first Monday in September as a day to be set apart for the benefit and enjoyment of all laboring people, and in honor of that branch of industry that is the foundation of our national prosperity.”
Barre Mayor John W. Gordon also spoke: “We are predominantly a nation of laborers. Today we have 70 million workers, and no nation has so small a number of idlers as we. Every hand accomplishes something. Think of the labor that was necessary to subdue this country, and years to develop the country as far west as the Mississippi River, but we have done it in 1/10 of that time, and have gone over the crest of the Rocky Mountain and even beyond the golden shore of California. The victory which was achieved at Manila (Spanish-American War) is nothing when compared with what we celebrate today. It is a fact that we have accomplished much more by labor than by war.”
On the same day, other labor observances were held. In Northfield, the most important speaker was Representative Swasey who traveled from Barre for the event. In the afternoon, hundreds of people attended the Labor Day event at the village green. Stores were decorated and businesses were closed.
Montpelier had a huge parade including a squad of police, the Montpelier Military Band and organizations such as granite cutters, carpenters painters, masons, polishers and bookbinders. The City of Montpelier contributed the floats. The main address was given at the Montpelier Opera House. In the afternoon, the Barre baseball team defeated National Life, 11-7. The machinists defeated the stone cutters, 13-12.
In 1899, Rutland and Burlington had major celebrations. One thousand men marched in a parade which was followed by a baseball game between Rutland and Fair Haven. Afterwards, there were speeches, boxing and dancing.
In Burlington, the parade consisted of workers from Winooski, Middlebury and Essex. The day featured the Vergennes band at City Hall, and a band at Battery Park and many sports and speeches.
While Labor Day celebrations took place all over Vermont in 1899, Barre can be proud of the fact that Rep. George Swasey of Barre introduced legislation in 1898 that made Labor Day a legal holiday.
Senator Bill Doyle serves on the Senate Education Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee. He teaches government history at Johnson State College. He can be reached at 186 Murray Road, Montpelier, VT 05602; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or call 223-2851.