The 229th Bristol Fourth

Jun 30, 2014

Hike the streets of Bristol this week. It’s an exercise in history and Old Home Week. From the concerts in Independence Park, to the taverns, markets and a Hope Street adorned with the freshly painted  red, white and blue stripe down the middle.

This old  New England port, marinated in history, is the scene this week of handshakes and hugs, as people who haven’t seen each other recently - some in many years – greet and relive the old times.

If John Phillips Sousa marches are the toe-tapping tunes of the parade, this week reminds thosewho live  in Bristol of Bruce Springsteen’s `Glory Days.’

The handsome colonials and Greek Revivals are garbed in their July vestments of American flags and more bunting that opening day at Fenway Park. The hydrangeas are in bloom, ready for the thousands who will flock the town for the 229th Bristol Fourth parade that is the nation’s oldest celebration of Independence.

Celebrating this summer holiday is a tradition that is gripped more tightly in Bristol than anywhere else. The Fourth is the town’s secular religion, a timeless mix of patriotism and provincialism. To the outsiders who throng the downtown parade route, the Fourth is a time to view the parade and oooo and ahhh as the fireworks splash across the night sky over Bristol harbor.

In Bristol, it is the season of family gatherings and high school reunions. Bristol natives return to the town from around the globe to greet old friends and family, then head off to picnics and parties overflowing with salad, stuffies, little necks, lobster, chourico and such backyard July cookout staples as burgers and hot dogs.

Through wars, depressions, recessions and family milestones, the rituals of a Bristol Fourth hold sway.

Listen to writer Mary Cantwell, who in her lyrical book, `American Girl’ tells of a Bristol coming of age in the years of the Great Depression and World War II.

``Early in the morning when the sky if still grey we can hear the dull boom of the fourth of July canon,’’ writes Cantwell.  ``Get up, get up my mother pleads…get up, get up…it’s time to get out the old blankets and folding chairs and spread them over’’ the thin strip of grass in front of their Hope Street home to claim a spot ``before the people from out of town come and park their carcasses right in front of you.’’

The canon thunders at dawn still. Parade goers still jockey for prime viewing spaces on Hope. And the town still does not permit anyone to camp out overnight or to set out chairs and blankets before 5 a.m., five hours before the parade steps off.

The town’s early fortunes were made from the African slave trade. The stately Linden Place mansion on the Hope Street parade route was built from slave profits. Cantwell’s memoir speaks to a time when Protestant natives and immigrant Roman Catholics eyed each other with suspicion.

The highest honor the town can bestow on a resident is to be named chief marshal, the leader of the parade. From 1795 until World War I, chief marshals were a long skein of Yankee surnames: Colt, DeWolf, Chase, Rockwell, Burnside and Haffenreffer. Then immigrants settled in and prospered and Irish and Italian last names move to the list of marshals: Leahy, Campagna, Riccio. The first chief marshal of Portuguese ancestry came in 1954 when Matt Brito led the parade. Now, most recent marshals have been of Portuguese descent in this community that has been home to generations of Portuguese-American immigrants.

This Friday, Rhode Island will once again celebrate a Bristol Fourth. The veterans in their too tight uniforms will be joined by the politicians seeking votes in this election year in marching down Hope Street. The drum and bugle corps  and the marching bands will entertain the crowds. The U.S. Navy sailors in their crisp white uniforms will march, too, then retreat to the waterfront taverns to collect thank-you-for-your service pints.

Rhode Island is lucky to have this tradition on our front porch. On the Fourth, there is Bristol. Let’s hope that as long as a free people celebrate our independence, that there will always be a Bristol Fourth.