BRISTOL, R.I. — This town doesn’t shed its patriotic colors on July 5. All year round, the double yellow line that runs down one of its main streets is painted red, white, and blue.
Bristol — a town with fewer than 25,000 inhabitants — says it is home of the oldest Fourth of July celebration in the nation. Residents take the holiday quite seriously.
Two days before the parade, it was tough to locate a house that wasn’t sporting stars and stripes. Many were totally decked out — possibly competing in the local competition for most patriotic display. A trailer painted red, white, and blue parked on Wood Street. Nearby, a mural that some contend is the state’s longest depicts high school band members, volunteer firefighters, a stilt-walker, and other locals marching in a parade.
Drivers coming into Bristol will notice that the welcome sign reads: “Home of America’s Oldest Fourth of July Celebration.” They’ve been celebrating since 1785, town historian Ray Battcher said, nearly 100 years before July Fourth became a national holiday.
Actually, it may even have started earlier. Local historian Richard Simpson wrote the definitive history of the celebration and quoted the log of Captain Mackenzie of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, who was stationed across the bay from Bristol on July 4, 1777.
“This being the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independency of the Rebel Colonies, they ushered in the morning by firing 13 cannons, one for each colony, we suppose,” Mackenzie wrote. They fired another 13 volleys at sunset, and according to Mackenzie, “the echo of the guns down the bay had a very grand effect.”
What was once simply 26 rounds has mushroomed into the town’s biggest annual series of events. Fourth of July Committee member Judy Squires estimated that the population more than quadruples for the parade on July 4.
“If you’re from Bristol and living out of town, this is far and away the holiday that you’ll come home for, above Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Squires said. “This is when we usually have our high school class reunions, because we’re able to get more people to come.”
Every year, the committee gives a “Longest Traveled” award; this year, it went to US Marine Corps Corporal Corey A. Burke, who traveled from a base in Iwakuni, Japan, for the holiday.
Chris Woodard of Keller Williams Realty in Bristol said that it’s a major selling point for local houses and apartments, and that property prices for houses on the parade route tend to be higher. “It’s sort of like waterfront housing,” Woodard said. “It’s a big deal because there are only so many houses on the parade route, and if you have a house there you’re definitely going to have a party on the Fourth.”
There is much, much more to the celebration than the parade. It publicly kicks off with Flag Day on June 14, and the list of subsequent events is overwhelming. This year, there were 15 concerts, 12 sporting events, a carnival, dinners, contests, raffles, and a “Miss and Little Miss Fourth of July” pageant series. That’s just a sampling.
The formal celebration wound down after the July Fourth parade, but it also didn’t really stop there. Squires said that the Fourth of July Committee meets again next week, to start the cycle again. And in Bristol, there are plenty of reminders year-round.
Starting this year, the celebration is getting its own license plate. Rhode Island residents successfully submitted over 900 registration orders. The soon-to-be-issued plate reads: “Rhode Island, Home of America’s Oldest Fourth of July Celebration.” Predictably, it’s red, white, and blue.
Bristol resident Isaiah Weeden said that many houses keep their decorations up after the holiday. “This town is so patriotic,” Weeden said. “Not just on the Fourth.”
On some houses in downtown Bristol, the decorations are a bit yellow, white, and blue from weathering the snow. And regardless of season, cars driving through town will see the patriotic stripe down the middle of the road.Sophie Haigney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-929-2560. Follow her on Twitter at @SophieHaigney