A preview story in the Bryan Democrat, dated June 27, 1919, described the upcoming July 4, 1919, celebration as follows: “An elaborate display of fireworks has been ordered in honor of returned soldiers and sailors. The fireworks will be shown during the evening from a conspicuous place, either from the tower of the court house or other point where they can be enjoyed by everyone.”
• In anticipation of July 4th in Bryan this year, the following is an excerpt from a book titled, “Hometown Band: 150 Years of Music and History in Bryan, Ohio,” by William L. Culbertson, of Bryan, that takes us back in time and sets the scene for that celebration:
Like the rest of the United States, the people in Bryan celebrated the armistice at the end of the First World War in November, 1918. On the next Fourth of July in 1919, the town held a special festival to honor returning soldiers and sailors. Our current Bryan City Band, then known as the Tubbs Municipal Band, was there—of course—but they also invited the Salvation Army Band from Toledo and Hicksville’s Hart’s Girls Band.
July 4, 1919 in Bryan started with a band concert at 10:00 am. The returning soldiers and sailors then paraded to the new 1000-seat school auditorium for more ceremonies, including a featured address by Judge Bowersox. At noon, the town hosted a dinner, free for the returning servicemen, in the school gym adjacent to the auditorium. The afternoon started with another band concert followed by a parade of patriotic floats. At 3:00 pm, the theaters had free shows for veterans. Airplane tours over the town were available. That evening, the Bryan band had a joint performance with the glee club followed by a dance.
All of this was just preliminary to the grand fireworks display after dark. In those days, the pyrotechnic show was right downtown. They shot the fireworks from the top floor of the courthouse tower right over the heads of the crowds gathered in the town square.
Charles “Minor” Leichty was in charge of the display. Leichty, a sometime circus high dive performer, worked in high places all around town including jobs at the courthouse tower—both inside and out. When the hands of the courthouse clock had needed painting, Leichty hung outside the tower in front of the clock face to do it. A golden fish weathervane had graced the peak of the courthouse when it was built in 1889. In 1905, the fish was replaced by a flagpole, and Leichty did the job. On that same flagpole, six years before the celebration on the fourth, Leichty had set a world record for flagpole sitting.
On the day of the fireworks show, Leichty, along with William Kuhn, Bert Brannan, and Clyde Gonter, lugged boxes of fireworks up the open flights of stairs inside the clock tower. They piled them on the top floor of the tower, up above the clock chamber and just under the roof. On this level, the tower has large openings flanked by pillars on each side. The view of the town below and the surrounding flat country-side goes on for miles.
By the time darkness fell, the men had set up the first of the gunpowder-filled shells and rockets on the ledges on all four sides of the tower. They stood ready to replace the rockets as they were fired one by one. At the appointed time, Leichty lit the first fuse, and the show was on. The initial rockets arched gracefully into the sky and detonated into blossoms of fire. Far below in the courtyard, the crowd of six thousand ooh-ed and ahh-ed with excitement.
At that moment, disaster struck. The third rocket misfired. Sputtering and flaring, it skittered across the chamber floor tumbling, scattering—and igniting the stacks of fireworks. Fire, sparkles, and explosions vomited from every opening at the top of the courthouse.
The Bryan Democrat reported, “The tower 200 feet above the ground resembled a volcano. The explosions shook the ground and the burning fireworks shot from the four sides of the tower and fell upon the crowd in the park and streets below, slightly burning a few.”
Within the tower, four men, along with Sheriff Lewis T. Perkins, who was there to supervise, were trapped in a maelstrom of fire. Sheriff Perkins, dazed and blinded by the detonations, fell through the open trap door fifteen feet to the floor below. Clyde Gonter jumped through right behind him. With fire and deafening explosions all around him, Leichty took refuge outside. He stepped out one of the openings and clung there, high on the outside of the tower, while shells, rockets, and debris bounced off him. Below, the crowd panicked. People in the courthouse square ran in all directions looking for safety. Horses reared and bolted. Buggies toppled over.
Long time Bryan resident Grant Brown remembered the night vividly. The night the courthouse erupted, he was eight years old. His parents had moved to Bryan from Pioneer on June 28, just the week before. On the Fourth, Grant was there with his parents to watch the show—an unexpectedly spectacular show it turned out. Terrified people ran in all directions. Grant was separated from his parents in the confusion. The Brown family lived a block north and a block west of the square, catty-cornered from the old Williams County jail. New to town, Grant didn’t know his way home.
Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt that evening. Sheriff Perkins got the worst of it with some burns on his hands and a few bruises. Clyde Gonter sprained his ankle during his leap from the fiery chamber.
That night, Grant Brown wandered through the downtown area as the crowd gradually dispersed. Finally, he found himself in front of the Christman Hotel where he recognized the red guest chairs lined up outside the hotel. Several days before, his mother had taken him grocery shopping at the store on the corner of Bryan and Main streets (where the US Post Office is today). He had seen the red chairs that day. Now he knew his way home — left turn and straight ahead two blocks!