The town crier Gerry MacNeil at the Bristol, Rhode Island Independence Day Parade. (Photo: Matt York/AP)
Every Fourth of July, I slog through holiday traffic to Cape Cod for one reason: the Independence Day parade in Chatham, Massachusetts. (Well, that and to see my parents, who live in the next town.)
Chatham’s parade is a small-town spectacle that started in 1908 —and it is still like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. There are homemade floats, vintage firetrucks, kids steering their hand-decorated bikes, even animals dressed up in their patriotic best. It was great when I was single, and it is even better now that I have a 20-month-old daughter and a 5-year-old niece to help get into the spirit.
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Fourth of July on Chatham’s Main Street. (Courtesy: Chatham Chamber of Commerce)
Early in the morning, we put the kids in their red, white, and blue, pack up our chairs and blankets, and try to beat everyone else to Main Street. Somehow everyone else gets there before us. No matter: even from the second row, it’s just as charming. One year we woke up early enough to make it to the pancake breakfast at the local elementary school. After the parade, there’s a strawberry shortcake festival (you can’t get more Norman Rockwell than strawberry shortcake). I always vow that next year we will decorate my dad’s convertible and join the parade.
With the women in my family at last year’s Fourth of July parade in Chatham, Massachusetts. (Photo: Tom Begley)
There’s nothing like Cape Cod in summer. This year, the holiday is on a Friday, which means it’s timed to something I’ve loved since I was a kid: the Chatham Band Friday Night Concert, held in the bandstand in the main park. We also make our ritual visits to the lighthouse to take goofy pictures with the old-fashioned coin-operated telescopes; to the Chatham Squire for fried clams; and to the Chatham Bars Inn for lobster rolls overlooking the ocean.
Across the country, there are many small towns that do it up for the Fourth, just like Chatham. Here are some of the best:
The oldest Fourth of July Parade in Bristol, Rhode Island. (Photo: H.C. Williams/Flickr)
Bristol, Rhode Island
Running continuously since 1785, Bristol is home to the oldest Fourth of July parade in the nation. Every year, 100,000 people — almost five times the population — descend on the little coastal town on Narragansett Bay. And they don’t just come for the parade: there’s also a drum-and-bugle corps competition and a Fourth of July ball. Locals decorate their Colonial houses to win big prizes. At the parade itself, keep an eye out for Miss — and Little Miss — Fourth of July, who were crowned at a pageant back in the spring. Now that’s patriotic.
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Fourth of July volleyball in Independence, Iowa. (Courtesy: celebrateindee.com)
With a name like Independence, you know that the Independence Day celebration here is going to be a blast. This small town on the Wapsipinicon River, deep in the Heartland, goes all out. There’s the requisite parade, which has been marching through town since 1860, followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence and tons of tournaments: horseshoes, bean bags, volleyball, you name it. And yes, at the end of the day, fireworks explode over the river.
Get your ducks in a row for Harrisville, Michigan’s annual Fourth of July Duck Race. (Photo: Thinkstock)
On the eastern shore of Lake Huron, Harrisville is a quintessential Midwestern hamlet, with some of the finest boating and salmon fishing around. But its quirky Independence Day festivities are what make headlines, notably the annual Fourth of July Duck Race that will have you humming, “Rubber Duckie, you’re the one.” Hundreds of the bright yellow toys are raced down Mill Creek. It’s followed by a kids’ parade at 1 p.m. and, come dusk, a massive fireworks display.
Red, white, and blue along the roadside in Natchitoches, Louisiana. (Photo: Matt Lowry/Flickr)
With its magnolia-lined streets and white-columned antebellum homes, you can’t get more authentic than Natchitoches, the setting for “Steel Magnolias.” There’s even a general store — the Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile — where they’ll ring up your purchases on a 1910 cash register. The riverside town in northern Louisiana honors the Fourth with its annual Celebration on the Cane festival. Look for a country fair, complete with a farmer’s market, karaoke, BBQ contests, and a cake walk. Parade and fireworks, you ask? Yes, ma’am.
Flying the flag at the World’s Oldest Rodeo in Prescott, Arizona. (Courtesy: World’s Oldest Rodeo)
This historic town in the mountains of central Arizona — home to the World’s Oldest Rodeo, in operation since 1888 — gets its cowboy on for the Fourth. The annual hoe-down starts June 28 and culminates on Independence Day. Look for bull riding, roping, a good-old-fashioned parade, and even a queen of the rodeo. Pony up for fireworks at day’s end.
High-fivin’ a Klingon at the World’s Shortest Parade, in Aptos, California. (Photo: David Beach/Flickr)
For “The World’s Shortest Parade” head to this tiny (population 6,220) beach town near Santa Cruz. The pint-size parade spans just two city blocks, but the festivities somehow manage to last for two hours. Get there early for the traditional — guess what — pancake breakfast and stick around for live music. The place to stay? Seascape Resort, which hosts bonfires on the beaches of Monterey Bay.