Old photographs bring old Petworth back to life on Fourth of July


A veteran from the Old Soldiers’ Home was chosen to portray Uncle Sam at the 1928 Petworth Fourth of July parade. That year, Virginia Baker Gist and Nelson Smith led the parade in D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood. (Courtesy of Virginia Baker Gist)
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Have you ever seen Uncle Sam? I mean the real Uncle Sam?

Of course you haven’t. There’s no such thing. Uncle Sam is a mythical figure most memorably personified in artist J.M. Flagg’s 1917 recruiting poster: a top-hatted, goateed man in red, white and blue exhorting, “I want you for U.S. Army.”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

And yet when I looked at the photos that Virginia Baker Gist sent me, I thought I was looking at the real deal.

Virginia is 91 and lives in Silver Spring. She grew up in Washington’s Petworth neighborhood at a time when the Fourth of July was a big deal. Every neighborhood had its own Independence Day parade. Because Petworth is close to what was known back then as the Old Soldiers’ Home, its parade featured an actual old soldier.

“Every year, they would select a soldier to march in the parade as Uncle Sam,” Virginia told me.

In 1920, her mother, Lilliane, snapped a few photos of that year’s honoree. The images are remarkable. Dressed in striped pants and star-bedecked top hat, clutching an American flag, the man looks like he stepped straight out of history, which I suppose is exactly what he did.

That unnamed veteran was probably too old to have served in the Great War, whose hostilities had ended less than two years earlier. Perhaps he was from the Spanish-American War or the Indian wars or even the Civil War.

Neighborhoods such as the Palisades and Takoma Park still have Fourth of July parades. The spirit might be the same, but the details sure are different. For example, the parade on the grounds of the old Walter Reed Army hospital featured marching Red Cross personnel who were followed, according to The Post, by “patients in gayly decorated wheel chairs.”

After the parade were what were described as “athletic events of a unique nature.” These included a “50-yard hop” for leg amputees, a one-legged hurdle race and an artificial-leg walk, “to be judged by form only.” Entrants were classed according to whether they had amputations of both legs, or of one leg, either above or below the knee.

They sound like modern paralympians.

Over in Piney Branch, there was the typical children’s parade, followed by “races for small boys.” But there were also balloon ascensions. The evening’s fireworks were supplied by an Army arsenal. Wrote The Post: “Many rockets such as were used on the western front by the army will add to the instructive advantages of this portion of the day’s events.”

Oh for some drones to fly low over Washington this Fourth of July!

Nearly every Independence Day event that I read about in The Post’s old stories featured a reading of the Declaration of Independence or the preamble to the Constitution. Would we even have the attention span for that today?

In 1928, when Virginia was 5, she was chosen to help lead Petworth’s Fourth of July parade. She wore a striped pinafore and held a parasol. Her co-leader was a little boy named Nelson Smith, dressed as a miniature Uncle Sam.

At the time, Virginia’s family lived at 4016 Illinois Ave. NW. Nelson’s lived two houses up. She says she doesn’t remember much of the parade, just that the route stretched from Sherman Circle to the Soldiers’ Home, what we today call the Armed Forces Retirement Home. There were marching bands and floats and Camp Fire Girls dressed as Native Americans.

And there was Uncle Sam, ramrod straight.

Flower children

In the city, seasons don’t have much detail. It’s hot. It’s cold. But in the country, things change from day to day. One year, I visited Camp Moss Hollow when the butterflies were out in profusion. This year, it was the day lilies.

As I bounced on the gravel road that leads to the camp’s entrance, I was surrounded by the orange flowers, their blossoms seeming to greet me (but in reality just straining toward the sun).

I’ll report on my visit to camp next week. In the meantime, we have a little more than a week left in our campaign for this summer camp for at-risk kids from the Washington area. Our goal is $500,000. Donate at www.familymattersdc.org. Or send a check, payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Family Matters of Greater Washington, 1509 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036, Attention: Accounting Department.

Clyde’s is providing gift certificates to its fine restaurants. If you donate $200 to $299, you’ll receive a $25 gift certificate. Give $300 or more, and you’ll get a $50 gift certificate. (Certificates will be mailed in August.)

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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