The Most Glorious Fourth
Orange CountyÂ¡Â¯s Goshen pulls out all the stops for its all-American Independence Day celebration
Text and photographs by Ted Spiegel
Goshen is not only the Orange County seat, itÂ¡Â¯s also the site of the Great American Weekend, arguably the Hudson ValleyÂ¡Â¯s liveliest Fourth of July celebration. Twenty thousand people a day will stroll through the nine-acre village green that surrounds the First Presbyterian Church, inspecting the offerings at 150 craft booths, grazing their way through a culinary snackopedia, and clapping approval for a parade of local entertainers. Thanks to a clause in the police departmentÂ¡Â¯s contract, the entire force works the whole weekend, assuring smooth traffic flow and efficient parking access.
The people of Goshen have come forward to preserve this nationÂ¡Â¯s independence and unity since the first Fourth of July observance in 1776. Monuments around the village center mark the mass grave of residents who died in the Battle of Minisink in 1779, honor those who rallied to the Union during the Civil War, and remember the ultimate sacrifice of later generations in two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the current Iraqi involvement. (An informative brochure directs you to each stop, where a knowledgeable guide awaits.) Somewhere along the way you will discover that despite GoshenÂ¡Â¯s refreshing patriotism, it was not the death of its heroes that inspired this all-out celebration of our nationhood, but rather the 1978 last will and testament of its multimillionaire benefactor, E. Roland Harriman.
President of the Orange County Driving Park Association, which operated the villageÂ¡Â¯s Historic Track, Harriman bequeathed his interest in the oval to the Harriman Foundation. His instructions: preserve and financially support harness racing at the track in its purest form Â¡Âª in other words, sport for sportÂ¡Â¯s sake, and no pari-mutuels. And that is how betting was banished where it had thrived for 150 years.
Goshen old-timers recall that the Grand Circuit Stakes Race Week surrounding the Fourth of July was the highlight of their year. Kids tallied out-of-state license plates for ice cream bets. Elegant Victorian homes rented out spare bedrooms for a premium. High rollers and their elegant ladies promenaded through town, gawking at the likes of James Cagney and Charles Coburn, and the best standardbred horseflesh pulled their sulkies around the half-mile track, laid out in 1838. Orange CountyÂ¡Â¯s most famous native son, the stallion Hambletonian, not only gave his name to the million-dollar stake race now run at the Meadowlands, but also sired 1,300 foals, the ancestors of 99 percent of the standardbreds today.
Â¡Â°No pari-mutuels! No Grand Circuit Races!Â¡Â± said the harness racing industry. Â¡Â°No, please no,Â¡Â± said the Goshen Chamber of Commerce.
Necessity was the real inventor of the Great American Weekend. When the village pledged to put on the best Fourth of July celebration, their intent was to fill the grandstand at the Historic Track with paying customers and surround the traditional induction ceremonies at the Harness Racing Hall of Fame with thousands of sports fans.
It worked, and GoshenÂ¡Â¯s Grand Circuit Week was saved. This year, the races will run from June 30 to July 4. On Sunday, July 3, Hall of Fame Day will again be celebrated at the Harness Racing Museum (where thereÂ¡Â¯s free admission throughout the races). At the Historic Track, July 3rdÂ¡Â¯s 16-race program will offer $250,000 in purse money. Bring your autograph book and seek out the herd of famous riders, trainers, and breeders who have come to welcome this yearÂ¡Â¯s inductees.
Goshen will be up and moving throughout the weekend. On Saturday, you can choose to slip on your running shoes for the 5- or 10-K races, treat the family to a hayride, or take the walking tour of the monuments. The next day, you can pull together a comically clad team and join the bed races, or harness up for the rock wall climb. Crafters offer their wares and demonstrate their skills in carving, painting, weaving, flower arrangement, and furniture-making. The entertainment tent has hourly shows featuring a multicultural array of Hudson Valley talent. The Goshen Chamber of CommerceÂ¡Â¯s Great American Weekend co-chairs, Wendy Bynum Wade and Liz LaMontanaro, head a legion of volunteers who spend months assuring that July 2 and 3 will be fun-filled and smooth-running. (Â¡Â°By Sunday night, weÂ¡Â¯ll be a pair of gimps,Â¡Â± confides Wade.)
Hungry? GoshenÂ¡Â¯s service organizations offer freshly prepared hamburgers and hot dogs (Rotary), sausage and peppers (Italian-American Society), stromboli and fried dough (Sons of Italy), gyros (Masons), fresh fruit cup and corn on the cob (Hamptonburgh Republicans), Philly cheese steaks (Chester Kiwanis), with breakfast prepared by the First Presbyterian Church. Every organization is nonprofit, and proceeds are used to support the community.
Mayor Scott Wohl is quick to observe that Â¡Â°everybody in town comes out to volunteer or visit around. TheyÂ¡Â¯re half the crowd. ItÂ¡Â¯s not surprising that the other half, coming from outside Orange County, find themselves thinking words like Â¡Â®quaint,Â¡Â¯ Â¡Â®charming,Â¡Â¯ and Â¡Â®refreshing.Â¡Â¯ Â¡Â± As a real estate appraiser who has seen local property values double in five years, Wohl has inside information: Â¡Â°Many a new town resident first met Goshen on the Great American Weekend.Â¡Â±
So rev up the horses in your familyÂ¡Â¯s carriage and head out Route 17 to join GoshenÂ¡Â¯s 24th Great American Weekend, an event that honors both the brave and the swift. Â¡Ã¶
The Great American Weekend runs 9 a.m.-5 p.m. on July 2 and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. on the 3rd. For more information, call 845-294-7741.