Scott MacKay Commentary: Bristol 232nd July Fourth Celebration

Jun 30, 2017

Few institutions in our society remain relevant for more than two centuries. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay takes us to his adopted hometown of Bristol, where the 232nd Independence Day parade steps off Tuesday.

The sunset sky is an exploding plum, the blue hydrangeas bloom on the lawn outside Linden Place and the red, white and blue stripes have been painted down Hope Street.

At precisely 10:30 tomorrow morning, the parade billed as American’s oldest Fourth of July celebration will step off at Chestnut and Hope as Bristol continues a tradition that is this historic town’s secular religion.

The scene is familiar to generations of Rhode Islanders and those who travel back to Bristol from around the globe. There will be bands, floats and puppets, the trill of bagpipes, young U.S. Navy sailors in their dress whites, older veterans wearing moth-chewed uniforms. And many, many wide-eyed children.

Bristol Harbor will glimmer with the riffle of hundreds of sails, the politicians will march, grinning through their “hihowahyahs”  as they  pass the Federal and Greek Revival homes festooned with more bunting than opening day at Fenway.

To outsiders, a Bristol Fourth is little more than a parade with the usual holiday themes—fireworks, patriotism and icy lemonade and lager. In Bristol, the Fourth is Old Home Week. High school classes hold reunions, rarely-seen family members travel home, greeted by overflowing tables of steamers, chorizo and burgers. Folks who haven’t seen each other in years hug in the streets.

Few places in the nation reflect our nation’s history like Bristol.  The greatest honor the town can bestow is to be named parade chief marshal. Halsey Herreshoff is a longtime political fixture in town. He is also a celebrated sailor who was a crew member of three America’s Cup winners. Yet, he says the biggest thrill of his life was a sun-washed July 4th, when, in boater and seersucker, he led the parade as chief marshal.

The list of chief marshals tells the story of Bristol, Rhode Island, and, indeed,  America. From 1795 until World War I, chief marshals were all Yankees. Their  surnames lwere Colt, DeWolf, Chase, Haffenreffer, Rockwell and Burnside. Then Irish and Italian immigrants settled in and were honored with parade leadership: Leahy, Campagna, Riccio. The first chief  of Portuguese ancestry came in 1954 when Matt Brito was chosen. Since, most chief marshals have been of Portuguese ancestry in a town that been home to waves of  Portuguese immigrants.

Tomorrow marks another milestone –the first time two sisters have been co-chief marshals in parade history. They are 52-year old Lisa Sienkiewicz and her 48-year old sister, Gail Perella. They run the family business started by their dad in the 1950s, Gil’s Appliances. They lived above the store on Wood Street as children and are Bristolians -- town natives, that is.

That’s a big deal in Bristol, where history seeps up from the streets. The town is divided into natives, the Bristolians and newcomers, or Bristol-lites. This was once a firm line of demarcation, but the old rifts have faded.  ``We’ve made the most wonderful friends of Bristol-lites,’’ says Sienkiewicz.

Bristol’s colonial-era fortunes came from the African slave trade. Reminders of this heritage are  sprinkled through town. Linden Place was built from the proceeds of the trade in human flesh. DeWolf tavern, the lovely waterfront restaurant, is housed in a restored rum distillery that fueled the triangle trade.

Some of the slave-trading DeWolf family descendants have mined their past and depicted it as the original American sin. In a book, “Traces of the Trade” and a movie, DeWolf family members have tried to reckon with their ancestors tortured past.

Writer Mary Cantwell grew up in Bristol. In her lyrical love letter to the town, “American Girl” she recalls coming of age in town during the Depression and World War II.

“Early in the morning when the sky is grey,” Cantwell writes, “we can hear the dull boom of the Fourth of July canon.’’

The canon will fire again at dawn tomorrow, as Bristol celebrates our nation’s independence in all its glory and complexity.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis  at our “On Politics” blog at