Eighty years ago, in 1940, humanity was facing a life threatening crisis. In early June, the blitzkrieg had been so overpowering that some 338-thousand Allied troops were forced to flee the shores of Dunkirk, France.
A few days later, Nazi soldiers were marching under the Arc de Triomphe, symbolizing their conquest of the City of Lights.
Though America had not yet entered the War, its effect was beginning to hit home in many ways. Among them: consideration of the first peacetime draft in American history while Maine Governor Barrows unsuccessfully protested FDR’s restriction on cross border traffic between the U.S. and Canada.
Independence Day 1940 the threat of war looming, news of a bombing that very day at the New York World’s Fair claiming the lives of two police officers, and rainfall during the day did not deter thousands throughout the state from venturing out to participate in celebrations. It was, after all a national tradition dating back to 1777. This was when Philadelphia debuted a fireworks display commemorating the first anniversary of Independence. (Indeed, Independence Day hit the books as a legal holiday in Maine several years before Christmas would attain that designation.)
The resort village of Allens Mills at Clearwater Lake in the town of Industry, just five miles east of Farmington, was no exception.
About 9:30 p.m. “sky rockets” were launched from a float just offshore from the beach. They were a mere 175 feet from the front row of some two thousand spectators who had lined the breakwater in anticipation of a dazzling display. The first few rounds that went off won cheers and applause both from those on shore and those witnessing it from boats in the lake itself. Tragedy stuck when sparks from one of the rockets flew into an open box of them on the float. The pyrotechnics intended to be launched vertically into the air to explode above the crowd then were ignited horizontally into spectators in every direction.
A stampede that miraculously avoided trampling to death those on shore soon ensued. Some fled on foot. Others jumped into the lake.
The misguided projectiles injured about twenty, killing one of the community’s most prominent citizens. Selectman Richard Bangs Hackett, 28, died of a ruptured liver and internal hemorrhaging. Nine year old Gerald H. Rand, died a day later, also from abdominal injuries.
Immediately behind Hackett from a vantage point atop his father’s shoulders on the shoreline next to Durrell’s Garage was five year old Donald Watson. Watson was injured in the event, suffering a burn under his eye, which left a scar he has carried for most of his life.
Now a retired high school science teacher, he divides his time between homes in Texas and the Allens Mills village where the 1940 tragedy occurred. He recalled the startling experience for this columnist recently.
“Richard was standing in front of us and when the rockets exploded in all directions the crowd panicked and ran in many directions trying to figure out what was going on.. Richard keeled over in front of us and my father set me down and asked Richard, ‘Are you okay?’ to which Hackett replied, ‘My stomach, I think it knocked the wind out of me.’
“He had taken a rocket into the abdomen. So dad and other men there picked him up and left me outside and took him to a nearby house but he died very shortly after.
“The rocket that struck him came directly across, four or five feet high. The rockets were going into the crowd. Their trajectory was not as much up in the air from whatever position they were in from the containers of rockets.”
Among others injured were Acting County Attorney and a former owner of Forster Manufacturing Company Benjamin Butler. He suffered a leg burn when one of the zig zagging rockets hit the motorboat from which he, his wife Natalie and 5-year old daughter Diane were observing the display.
A rocket tore into a parked automobile while another pierced the roof of the nearby Rackliff residence on the Farmington Road.
In those days, ambulance or rescue services were provided by the county sheriff’s department. Their access was held up by traffic jams worsened by constricted travel lanes as cars and trucks were parked on both sides of the then narrower State Route 43.
Though the Lewiston Evening Journal the next day reported that some thirteen fireworks injuries had also occurred in Maine‘s second largest city, Lewiston, only one other fireworks related fatality besides the Hackett and Rand deaths were reported in the entire nation.
Despite their tragic deaths, Hackett and Rand left a legacy that included accomplished family members. Rand’s younger brother, 7 year old Jimmy Rand, became a mathematically gifted scientist whose projects included work on the NASA space shuttle.
Their father, George Rand, a long time member of the staff at Wilfred McLeary Hardware store was a fixture at Farmington town meetings in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s where he took to the floor as a proponent of a variety of views on local issues.
Richard Hackett’s niece, Carolyn Churchill, was a small child at the event and escaped injury. She recalled her uncle as “extremely talented,” as an artist, pianist and writer when she spoke with me last week. The well known former owner of a bridal fashion business, Churchill’s only distinct memory of the event was being “whisked away” from the turmoil.
Another of Hackett’s relatives, nephew Sayward Hackett, followed in his uncle’s footsteps as a town selectmen. He also served on the school board.
This year, nearly all communities in Maine and throughout the nation will be foregoing the kind of public display of fireworks as drew thousands to Clearwater Lake eighty years ago. Many private exhibitions are expected to occur. They are a testament to the fact that the impetus to observe our nation’s independence still endures.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine; he can be reached by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.