Scott MacKay Commentary: Bristol's 233rd Fourth of July Celebration

Jul 2, 2018

Narragansett Bay is alive with sails, the spectacular sunsets burst into pink and plum streaks and fireworks flash and linger across the night sky.

The blue hydrangeas adorn the lawn at Linden Place, the handsome Federal and Greek Revival houses are festooned with bunting. The red, white and blue stripes that guide marchers are painted  on Hope Street.

At 10:30 Wednesday morning, America’s oldest continuous Independence Day parade steps off at Chesnut and Hope as the 233rd Fourth of July  celebration engulfs Bristol.

The tableau is a familiar one to generations of Rhode Island and Massachusetts residents, especially for those from Bristol. The Fourth in Bristol is a mix of patriotism, parochialism and Old Home Week in this quintessential New England community.

The parade is this town’s secular religion. A committee meets year round to plan and raise money for the celebration.  The highest honor the town can bestow on a resident is to be named the chief marshal, who leads the parade. From 1795 until World War I, the chief marshals were an elongated queue of Yankee Protestants. Their surnames: Colt, DeWolf, Haffenreffer, Rockwell.

Then immigrants, lured by manufacturing jobs in a community that was once an industrial powerhouse, settled in Bristol. Italian-American and Irish-American names appear on the rolls of marshals—Leahy, Riccio, Campagna. The first chief marshal of Portuguese-American lineage came in 1954 when Matt Brito led the marchers. Since, many marshals have been of Portuguese ancestry, along with a smattering of Yankee  names, including Herreshoff and Bosworth.

Marshals were once all men. Women have broken the glass parade ceiling. Last year, for the first time, two sisters, Lisa Sienkiewicz and Gail Parella, who run a popular appliance store in town, were co-chief marshals. This year, Kathleen Bazinet, a former member of the town council with a deep roots in town and a long record of civic involvement, will kick off the parade.

Bristol takes tradition seriously. Halsey Herreshoff, a longtime civic presence and former town council member, is also a celebrated sailor. Herreshoff was a crew member of three America’s Cup winners. Yet, he says, the biggest honor of his long life came on a sun-washed July Fourth in 1984 when, in seersucker and straw boater, he led the parade.

On Wednesday, the scene will be familiar. Toe-tapping Sousa marches, Drum and bugle corps, U.S. Navy sailors in their dress whites and veterans in their tight uniforms will follow the floats and baton twirlers along Hope Street.

The town reflects the American story and especially, Rhode Island’s. Bristol’s colonial-era fortunes were earned in the African slave trade. Reminders of this horrible legacy are visible still. The Linden Place mansion was built from the proceeds of the trade in humans. DeWolf Tavern, the wonderful waterfront restaurant, is located in a restored rum distillery that fueled the notorious Triangle Trade.

Some of the DeWolf family descendants have come to a reckoning with their family’s past and portray it as the original American sin. In a book, “Traces of the Trade,” and a film, DeWolf family members have mined their family’s past and tried to come to grips with the privilege, money and pedigree they gained from their ancestors slave trading.

Writer Mary Cantwell was raised in Bristol during the Depression and World War II. In her book, “American Girl,” she recalls coming of age in the town and the rituals of the Fourth.

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

The canon will fire again on Wednesday at dawn, as it always has. Church bells will peal at 6 a.m., as always.

Parents and grandparents will rouse their children, much as in Cantwell’s time. After the boom of the canon, Cantwell’s mother would plead, “Get up, get up. It’s time to get out the old blankets and folding chairs and ands spread them over” the strip of lawn between their Hope Street home and the street to claim a spot, “before the people from out of town come from and park their carcasses right in front of you.”

The other highlight of July 4th week in Bristol is the way the town gets together. High school classes and families have reunions. Those raised in the town travel back from around the globe, greeted by old friends and family members and tables loaded with steamers, chorizo, lagers and lemonade. Friends who haven’t seen each other in years hug on the streets on in the parking lot outside the Lobster Pot.

Through wars, recessions, family joys and sadness, a Bristol Fourth has been a perennial in a New England summer. In the their 1937 book, the “Rise of American Democracy,” authors Mabel Casner, a Connecticut high school teacher, and Ralph Henry Gabriel, a Yale professor, mull democracy.

The book was authored in the grim days of the Depression, when Fascism, not democracy, was on the rise. They took the long view. “We live today in perilous times; so did many of our forefathers. They sometimes made mistakes; let us strive not to repeat these errors. The generations which lived before us left us a heritage of noble ideals; let us hold fast to these.”

Is there a better place to reflect on the American ideal on the Fourth than Bristol, which celebrates the nation’s founding in all its complexity, ambivalence and patriotism?