Bristol, Rhode Island 4th of July Celebration | A Red, White & Blue Day
A Bristol, Rhode Island 4th of July is an Independence Day like nowhere else — with pomp and color that is Bristol’s Fourth of July celebration. Learn more about the week-long celebration.
Judy Squires met with other members of the Patriotic Exercises committee outside the Colt School at 6:45 a.m. They looked up through the drizzle at glowering skies and made the call to move the ceremony indoors. “Second time in 15 years,” she said.
By the time Chief Marshal Tony Teixeira stepped off at 10:30 near the entrance to the state park, though, bright sunshine was glinting off Bristol Harbor, and the last of the glistening puddles had disappeared along Hope Street and the 2.5-mile-long parade route that ran straight through the heart of town. The climax of the weeks-long Independence Day celebration would go off with a big, loud, red-white-and-blue-sky bang. At 227 years and counting—the longest such tradition in the country—nothing was going to rain on Bristol’s parade.
More than 100,000 people lined the parade route, on lawn chairs and beach towels and picnic blankets, hanging out of second-floor windows, standing five and six and seven deep. And here came the floats and twirling color guards and the marching bands and the drum-and-bugle corps, stepping smartly past preppies and punk rockers and Old Navy families and old folks and toddlers in strollers, all of them a waving sea of patriotic color: red-white-and-blue T-shirts and sundresses and sunglasses and Hawaiian leis and Uncle Sam hats and face paint and hair, starred-and-striped sandals and neckties and umbrellas and flags. Flags on sticks, flags on buttons, flags on drinking cups, and, backing all of them, flags hanging from flagpoles and utility poles and draped from awnings and windows and overhead wires, and bunting dressing up the old stately Colonials along the tree-shaded street.
Judy Squires sat in a lawn chair in front of the Colt School, near the halfway point of the parade route, and watched it all wash past: pipers in their kilts and the Clydesdales and the black convertible with Cranston’s own dark-haired Olivia Culpo, 2012’s Miss USA, waving to the throng. Judy watched the flower-filled float carrying Bristol’s newly crowned Miss Fourth of July and Little Miss Fourth of July and, walking alongside them, her daughter, Heidi, co-chair of the pageant and a former Miss Fourth of July herself. As a little girl, she had helped her mom with the pageant and had grown up dreaming of one day wearing the crown.
It’s not uncommon to find two and even three generations of the same family working together on the celebration—or taking on the same committee assignments decades apart. Judy remembers helping her mother in the kitchen making fudge at 7 years old, when her mother was working on the annual “Card Party” fundraiser, a few years before her father, John Partington, as chair of the Parade subcommittee, assigned Judy and a couple of her girlfriends to count all the people marching in the parade that year. Her father served on the committee for 57 years, including two years overseeing the whole operation as general chair. In time, Judy took on the chairmanship of the Card Party, then chaired Old Fashioned Days, Patriotic Exercises, the Parade, and various other subcommittees. In 2010 she took over the big job of general chair, commanding an army of 110 volunteers, a budget of $300,000, and a relentless schedule of events that included 13 concerts between Flag Day and the Fourth. “I’d been teaching for 35 years and thought I’d retire before signing up for general chair,” Judy says. “It’s really a full-time job. But I’m glad I didn’t wait.” Her father died early the next year at 89, and had had that one chance to watch Judy run the show. “You know,” John told his daughter, “your job is much harder than mine was when I was general chair.”
“You finally admit it!” Judy replied.
And here came the fifes and drums, the loud, smoky reports of the Minutemen re-enactors, the Army Guardsmen in their camo and the sailors in their crisp dress whites; here came veterans from Iwo Jima riding atop the Raytheon float; here came the convertible carrying Medal of Honor recipient Gary Wetzel, waving his prosthetic left arm to applause and cheers. (For the veterans and the enlisted men, Judy says, “it’s pretty much a two-and-a-half-mile-long standing ovation.”)
Amid all the pomp and color that is Bristol’s Fourth of July celebration, the military is a reminder of why the community goes to such effort. The relationship between the two runs deeper than the parade. Every year for the past century, a naval ship has been invited to anchor in the harbor, its crew welcomed into volunteers’ homes and encouraged to take part in the festivities. During Judy’s first year as Parade chair, she got a call from a father in Colorado who knew that his son would be coming up to Bristol for the Fourth on a ship from Norfolk, Virginia. They had relatives in Maine who hadn’t seen him in a long time: Would it be possible for them to all be together at the start of the parade route and surprise him?
“Of course,” Judy told him.
After the parade, she sought out the family at the military picnic and softball game and greeted them in person.
During Judy’s first year as general chair, she attended a reception for some of the men assigned to the USS Squall, the Cyclone-class patrol ship anchored in Bristol Harbor that July. She and her husband later went aboard and got a tour. Now, she sat and watched some sailors break formation and drift over to the crowd and exchange high-fives with a few little kids. She’d recently received a phone call from the former lieutenant commander of the Squall, Brian Luebbert, who had been so touched by the warmth he’d felt in Bristol that he’d asked to be assigned to the Naval War College in nearby Newport. He was here in Bristol now, with his wife and three kids—watching the parade from a bed-and-breakfast just a few doors down from the Colt School. When the parade finally ended, four hours after it had begun, Luebbert went to Judy’s house to say thank you.
For details on this year’s celebration, visit: july4thbristolri.com