The Tiny Town That’s Home to America’s Oldest July 4th Celebration
On the surface, Bristol, Rhode Island is a typical coastal New England town. Situated at the end of a peninsula near the Rhode Island-Massachusetts border, Bristol covers only about 10 square miles, and its population is fewer than 25,000. Many of its main landmarks are historic, including a 19th-century lighthouse and the Blithewold Mansion, a gigantic home with beautiful botanical gardens that was built in 1895. It’s also home to Roger Williams University, named for the founder of the state. But Bristol’s biggest claim to fame isn’t a physical landmark.
Bristol’s annual Fourth of July celebration, which takes over the town for the three weeks leading up to Independence Day, is the oldest shindig of its kind in America. (It even predates the Fourth of July being named a national holiday, which didn’t happen until 1870.)
The very first event took place in 1785, and was a decidedly subdued affair. According to town historian Richard V. Simpson, fewer than two dozen people attended a service with prayers, speeches, and singing at the town’s Congregational Church. Today, things have definitely changed. The celebration begins on Flag Day with a ceremony that includes the introduction of Miss and Little Miss Fourth of July (yes, that’s a thing; the winners are chosen in May) and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Over the next few weeks, there are dozens of quirky small-town events—think orange crate derbies, vintage baseball games, drum and bugle corps performances, and even a carnival—as well as a big fireworks display on July 3.
But Bristol’s patriotism really shines on July 4, when a parade travels two-and-a-half miles through the town. Though the parade hasn’t been without its problems—in 2009, a group called the Rhode Island Tea Party Association was barred from participating—it’s generally a charming affair, with floats, town dignitaries, and a Chief Marshal promenading along the waterfront.
“The celebrations began with less than 20 people and a simple procession in 1785,” Bristol Fourth of July General Committee member Ray Lavey told Mental Floss. “It’s wonderful to see the passion, excitement, and growth for Bristol’s Independence Day year after year.”
While it’s not a regular magnet for celebrities like the Macy's 4th of July Fireworks Spectacular (which didn’t get its start until 1976), Bristol has hosted a few well-known names: Natalie Cole attended the parade one year, as did Ray Bolger, the actor who played the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Occasionally, a rep from one of New England’s sports teams—the New England Patriots or the Boston Bruins—will show up. No sign of Touchdown Tom Brady yet, but hey, you never know.
A version of this article appeared in 2015.