On Politics
5:00 am
Wed June 27, 2012

Rhode Island’s Iconic July Fourth

The hydrangeas are in full bloom, the sailboats bob on their harbor moorings and the red, white and blue stripe adorns Hope Street. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay takes a break from politics to celebrate our nation’s birth.

It’s the height of summer: long days of light framed by peach sunsets, high sun and a cobalt sky punctuated by whipped cream clouds.

The handsome Federal and Greek revival homes are dressed in American flags and more red white and blue bunting than Fenway Park on Opening Day.

We’re in Bristol, naturally, the Rhode Island community that has celebrated Independence Day for more than two centuries with an  aplomb unmatched in these United States.

Wednesday marks the 227th Bristol Fourth parade, the nation’s oldest celebration of our Independence from the British, whose troops burned 30 Bristol houses during the early years of the Revolutionary War.

Thousands of Rhode Islanders will flock to Bristol. They will gaze at the floats, tap their toes to Sousa marches, cheer the U.S. Navy sailors in their dress whites and wave at the preening politicians pleading for notice in this election year.

Celebrating this summer holiday is an American tradition that is grasped more tightly in Bristol than anywhere else. The Fourth of July is Bristol’s secular religion, a timeless mélange of patriotism and provincialism.

The parade is the culmination of a year’s work by the town’s volunteer Bristol Fourth Committee, which stages everything from a fancy ball under a billowing white tent at Mount Hope farm to beauty pageants and raffles to finance the parade and the cavalcade of concerts and events that mark its arrival.

To outsiders, Bristol’s Independence Day celebration is a time to see the parade and watch the fireworks explode over Narragansett Bay. In Bristol it’s Old Home Week, a time for family and high school reunions. Bristolians travel from around the globe to greet old  friends with hugs and handshakes, then retreat to family picnics overflowing with salad, little necks, lobsters and chourico.

Through wars, depressions and family milestones, Bristol’s Fourth rituals prevail. Listen to writer Mary Cantwell, who in her book `American Girl’ chronicled coming of age in Bristol in the time of the Depression and World War II.

“Early in the morning when the sky is still grey we can hear the dull boom of the Fourth of July cannon,’’ Cantwell writes. “Get, get up, my mother pleads…get up, get up…its 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 house to claim the spot before “the people from out of town come and park their carcasses right in front of you.’’

The canon thunders at dawn still. Spectators jockey for prime parade viewing spaces. And the town still doesn’t allow anyone to camp overnight or set out blankets and chairs before 5 a.m.

Cantwell’s memoir speaks to a time when Protestants, Catholics, immigrants and natives eyed each other warily. Bristol is both Rhode Island’s story and…. America’s.

The town’s early fortunes were made from the African slave trade; the stately Linden Place mansion along the Hope Street parade route was financed by slaving profits. The Yankee traders invested those profits into factories and Bristol became a magnet for immigrants who worked in the rubber, boat-building and textile industries.

The highest honor the town can bestow on a resident is to be named chief marshal, the leader of the parade. From 1785 through the Jazz Age of the 1920s, the chief marshals were a long line of Yankee surnames: Colt, DeWolf and Chase, Rockwell, Burnside and Haffenreffer. Then the immigrants settled in and Irish and Italian names are etched on the list of  marshals: Leahy, Campagna and Riccio. The first chief marshal of Portuguese descent came in 1954 when Matt Brito led the parade. Recently, many marshals have boasted Portuguese ancestry.

Most of us have family photos of   Thanksgiving or Christmas on our mantles. Bristolians have sepia photos of long ago fourths.

In many communities the keepers of local history and the preservation of historic buildings are pedigreed old families. In Bristol, it’s everyone.

Cantwell again, “One learns about history early in Bristol, simply by looking around.’’

Rhode Islanders are lucky. On July Fourth, there was Bristol, there is Bristol. And as long as we celebrate our independence, there will always be Bristol.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:40 and 8:40 on Morning Edition. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org

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