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America's Oldest 4th : The historic town of Britol, Rhode Island, pulls out all stops for its long-running Independence Day celebration

July 04, 1993|CAROL McCABE | McCabe is a reporter and book editor for the Providence (R.I.) Journal, and a frequent writer of travel articles. and

BRISTOL, R.I. — My friends Ruth and Jack Connery, who live down the street from me in this historic town, just had their house painted. When they contracted for the work, they included a standard local proviso: The job had to be done by the Fourth of July. In Bristol, plans revolve around July 4 the way plans in other American communities revolve around Dec. 25 or Super Bowl Sunday. Our town's Independence Day observance, which dates from 1785, is believed to be the nation's oldest, and its annual return is celebrated in a big way.

Events--a beauty contest to choose the queen, a fireman's muster, block dances, boat and running races, a greased pole climb, band competitions, a carnival and fireworks display among them--last more than a week. But the celebration reaches the top of the flagpole on July 4 (or July 5, in years such as this when the Fourth falls on Sunday). This year, Bristol's Independence Day parade will once again high-step through town for more than two hours, dozens of brass bands blatting, platoons of politicians shaking hands, and flotillas of floats gliding proudly under the auspices of local supermarkets, auto dealers and restaurants.

It's all part of the spectacle that regularly draws some 200,000 visitors to join 22,000 of us locals in celebrating the Fourth. Out-of-staters quickly fall for the Norman Rockwell charm of Bristol, located midway between Providence and Newport on the eastern side of Narragansett Bay. Clapboard houses with National Register plaques and lacy fanlight windows line the parade route. Some of the homes' gingerbreaded porches and carved eagles were the work of ships' carpenters, for this has always been a town of boats and boatwrights, sailors and fishermen.

The 2.8-mile parade route forms a "U," following Hope Street, the main thoroughfare through downtown, passing a seawall at the edge of the bay, then looping onto parallel High Street, where I live. By the time the high school bands and members of Congress pass my house on High Street, a few blocks from the end of their effort at the Town Common, they're drooping slightly but respond with enthusiasm to neighborhood cheers.

Last year there were about 100 strangers outside my house to cheer the passing parade: a team of Clydesdales sponsored by Hallamore Trucking, a color guard sent by the state prison, the head coach of the Bristol Wrestling Club, Frenchy the singing barber waving regally from a convertible, an onslaught of environmentally active children carrying signs urging "Stop Junk Mail," and much, much more. Eleven divisions passed my house, each assigned a theme like "Liberty" or "Bill of Rights." The "Freedom" division exemplified American diversity, juxtaposing the Knights of Columbus, the New Bedford High School Band, a solar-powered automobile, a 1926 Ford Model T delivery truck sponsored by a bakery, and a graciously waving Miss Rhode Island, Lisa Snow.

Some regular spectators have made themselves as much a part of parade tradition as the town's old firetrucks and post office vehicles. Take Gerrie and Mickie MacNeill, who live across the street from me. About 10 years ago, Gerrie, whose Old Testament white beard owes nothing to adhesive, began wearing a cardboard Uncle Sam hat to the parade. Over time, other elements of a Yankee Doodle wardrobe came into his possession, and on July 4, Gerrie now transforms himself into Uncle Sam from head to toe.

His wife Mickie concedes, however, that they probably went too far the year she dyed his beard with red and blue stripes and stuck gold stars in it. Too messy to get out. Mickie herself is a bit more subdued. She just dresses up like Betsy Ross.

Charlene Vernon, a.k.a. "The Parade Lady," arrives from her home in nearby Warren, R.I., wearing something uniquely patriotic every year; one of her most memorable costumes was worn in 1991, when she was a Patriot missile, in honor of the Gulf War weapon.

Then there's "The Living Flag: Six Festive Americans," former spectators who have become official marchers, thanks to the ingenious costumes designed by Marilyn St. Ours. A professional artist, St. Ours creates the designs that her father reproduces in his tattoo parlor. Her Independence Day creation is a human flag, its stars and stripes spray-painted in segments on six white T-shirts and six pairs of pants. The shirts and pants are worn by St. Ours, who identifies herself as "the short, striped one on the end"; her husband Andrew, who portrays the flagpole with an eagle finial on his head; Marilyn's sister, and three friends.

They first unfurled their flag several years ago as spectators standing in front of a friend's house on the parade route. They made such a hit that they were asked to become an official part of the parade, right in there with the Coast Guard's lighthouse float, the Rhode Island State Troopers, the submarine veterans and a mysterious dark-haired lady identified in last year's program as "Rhode Island's Most Beautiful Woman, Tina Cordeiro."

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