One Square Mile: Don't Call Bristol's Parade the Oldest in the Country

Oct 9, 2013

This morning we continue our One Square Mile/Bristol series with an in depth look at the town's famous parade. It's many things, but it's not the oldest 4th of July parade in America:

A float moves down Hope St. in Bristol during the 2013 Fourth of July celebration.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

Nothing drives organizers of the Bristol 4th of July parade crazier than hearing a reporter describe it as the oldest in the country. It's not. What is true is what's on the town's welcome sign which reads "Welcome to Bristol, Home of America's Oldest 4th of July Celebration." You see it hasn't always been marching bands and drum and bugle corps. The tradition started in 1785 with what was called a "patriotic exercise" -- basically the reading of speeches at a local church.
Bristol parade historian Richard Simpson, author of the book "Independence Day: How The Day Is Celebrated in Bristol Rhode Island" says the parade may have morphed out of these patriotic exercises.
"Through my research,” says Simpson “what I came to understand from all the documents I was reading that as the town population grew people were meeting at different corners, different places throughout the town to get together to go to the patriotic exercises at the Congregational Church. So actually it was an informal parade. And who knows maybe at that time the musicians who were going to play at the exercises went along with the citizens going to the exercises and so the town council felt it was time to put some water to this and they appointed a chief marshal to make the thing more coherent.”
According to Simpson, since 1785 there have been only eight times when a parade wasn't held. The most common cause is economic distress. But in 1881 it was cancelled over the assassination of President James Garfield.
The town's population of roughly 22,000 more than quadruples on the 4th of July. And at 10:30 sharp the parade steps off from the corner of Chestnut and Hope Streets. The two-and-a-half mile route can take four hours to complete.

The iconic tri-colored highway divider, which is painted the length of the parade route through Bristol.
Credit Flo Jonic / RIPR

In recent years, spectators have had to wait until six am to stake out prime viewing spots along the parade route. Bristollians -- hospitable as they are -- got tired of people camping out on their front yards, according to parade historian Richard Simpson.
"So that kind of ticked off the people who actually lived along the parade route because they felt the grassy area in front of the house belonged to them and they wanted it for their own guests but these people were coming from actually all over the country -- the northeast anyway  -- and staking out claims."
The Independence Day celebration in Bristol actually begins on June 14th, Flag Day. In the three weeks between the two holidays there are band concerts, baseball games, beauty pageants and a town ball. Planning for the parade goes on all year.  Dick DeVault has been on the 4th of July Committee for ten years, the last two as chairman.

Dick Devault, chairman of the Bristol Parade.
Credit Flo Jonic / RIPR

"How much of a time commitment is it?, I asked.” “Well,”  said DeVault, “again that varies from member to member.  For me it was a full time job because I'm retired. And because I'm retired I can do a lot more than a person who's not."
And unlike some communities, which have had to scale back their patriotic celebrations for lack of help, DeVault says they have no trouble finding volunteers for the 4th of July celebration in Bristol.
"No, that's not been an issue in terms. Why do you suppose? This is a long-term celebration. That means a lot to the town of Bristol. These are my opinions. People have been a part of it in many cases since they were very small. It's been here since 1785 so I guess the idea of keeping it going means a lot to a lot of people."
The parade has not been without its mishaps. In 1972 the parade committee invited then- Navy Secretary John Chafee only to disinvite him later when he quit his job to run for the U.S. Senate. It was a long standing policy of the 4th of July Committee to invite only incumbent office holders to march. Parade historian Richard Simpson says Chafee took the rebuff gracefully but didn't stay away from the parade.

"He marched the sidewalk back and forth shaking hands with his friends and supporters,” says Simpson. “So he did all right and in the end he was elected senator."
In the bicentennial year of 1976 the parade had to be re-routed after a fight broke out between marchers and spectators.

"There were a group of toughs that kind of occupied a vacant lot down on Hope Street opposite the harbor. The heat and the beer got to them and people were throwing fireworks into the marchers. So there was a group of marchers  (I think they were from Canada).  They broke ranks, went into the crowd of tough guys and a fight ensued."
The parade not only draws spectators from around the country, but brings native Bristollians home as well. Each year a prize is given out to the native Bristollian who has travelled the farthest to attend the festivities. Parade historian Richard Simpson:

"The person who comes the furthest to be home on the 4th of July receives a flag that has flown over the nation's capitol. And people have come from Guam. Hawaii is nearby! Usually veterans come home. They'll take their leave to come back to Bristol at that time. But sometimes citizens who have jobs in foreign countries will come home.”
Perhaps a prize should have also been given this year to 89-year-old Betty Grimo, a native Bristollian who has been attending the parade since she was a Girl Scout.
"I love the military,” Grimo says, “ because my husband is a Marine from World War II. He was in Guadalcanal. And he's been gone eight years and he loved his parade desperately. And that's what I'm so proud of -- the military."

Parade spectators line Hope St. during the 2013 parade.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

Bristol is proud of its Independence Day tradition. It not only draws locals closer
but is a boon to the local economy. And its longevity has earned it the moniker "America's Most Patriotic Town."