By Anita Rafael
For 58 of the 70 years the villagers of Wardsboro have been organizing the town’s Fourth of July parade and street fair, resident Bette Allen Parsons has been part of it in one way or another — early on, as a pint-size helper serving food, and all her adult life, as an all-in volunteer and committee member.
To honor her, and the countless things she has done to make Wardsboro a wonderful place to be born, grow up, raise a family and retire to, she was chosen to be grand marshal of this year’s parade.
Parsons, 73, will be the red-, white- and blue-clad great-grandmother wearing mirrored sunglasses, as she cruises by the cheering, clapping crowds with one hand on the throttle of her gleaming, bright red 1800cc Honda Goldwing Trike, while waving with the other. You can’t miss Parsons, she’ll be right up front.
Let’s look back, though, at the year the parade began, and Parsons was just 3 years old. On Independence Day 1949, Harry S. Truman, president of the United States, was midway through the first year of his first elected term in office. On that same day, a Monday, the people of the tranquil little township of Wardsboro — population at the time: 400 — held their first patriotic parade and street fair on Main Street.
The parade route, along what was then an unpaved lane, passed between the two-story, Greek Revival-style Town Hall and the white-clapboarded Methodist church. The marchers went up a way, just beyond a handful of 100-year-old homes and cow barns, then turned around in a pasture and came back down.
For each of the past 70 years since then, the townspeople, under the leadership of the Fourth of July Committee and the help of dozens of steadfast volunteers, have recreated that first celebration.
The parade takes place on the same quaint street [it has been paved for some time now], goes up past the Town Hall and church, same as always, by the same seven or eight old houses and now-empty cow barns, and back again. With about 100 participants, it’s not a very long parade, but the bonus is that everyone gets to see it twice.
The event committee claims that this is the longest continuously running Fourth of July celebration in Vermont.
“It would be easy to take it for granted that after hosting this for so long that nothing ever changes at Wardsboro’s festivities, but over the years, we’ve added lots of different things to create more fun for everyone,” said Katryna Fitzpatrick, the committee’s executive director since last year.
But, what hasn’t changed? The parade.
“Our parade will always be at the heart of our patriotism on the fourth,” she said. “So, this year, to make it more inspiring, we’ve sent out dozens of personal invitations for marchers and floats to scout groups, fire departments, schools, clubs, antique auto owners, equestrians, businesses, politicians, local officials and private individuals to join us on the Fourth.”
It is free to march in this historic little procession, and, actually, people of all ages are invited.
“We hope to boost the spirit of competition, too,” Fitzpatrick said.
In truth, the minute the participants step into pre-parade formation along South Wardsboro Road, between the bridge over the Wardsboro Brook and the turn for Dump Road, there is no one in the lineup who doesn’t covet the bragging rights that come with winning a big, blue ribbon for best horse or dog presentation, best patriotic or historical float, best business float, best musical float or marching band, best walking group, best tractor, best antique car, best antique truck, best sports car, best fire engine or emergency vehicle and best fire department.
“What strikes me about this event is that the people who participate in the parade and the volunteers who work all day are so genuine,” said Fitzpatrick, a lifelong Wardsboro resident. “Their excitement on the Fourth is contagious, and the spectators feel that they are part of that. People linger in town long after the parade passes by.”
Many of the thousands who head to Wardsboro for a good time, as well as “good eats, good arts and crafts and fun outdoor shopping” on the town’s “Big Fourth,” are not aware that the event serves more than a patriotic purpose.
The Rev. Pete Carlson, the master of ceremonies for the day, explains that it is sponsored by the town’s three churches, a congregation known collectively as the Wardsboro Yoked Parish, which shares the profits with the community at large. Because of the ongoing success of the Fourth of July parade and events, the parish is able to keep money available at all times to help townspeople who are facing hardship, and need food or emergency financial assistance for a short time.
“For those reasons, it’s worth the tremendous time and effort,” he said. “It’s a big event for such a small town to organize, and even so, we’ll start thinking about how to make it better and more wonderful for next year on the morning of July fifth.”
The entire day — from the parade kickoff, the peal of the church bell, and the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at precisely 10 a.m. to the last bite of the last open-pit barbecued chicken sometime later in the afternoon — always has been a spirited snapshot of old-fashioned Rockwellian Americana.
If you’re seeking to spark some sentimental feelings about the words Old Glory on this Fourth of July, the old Main Street in old Wardsboro might be the only place you’ll find it. •
If you go…
70th Wardsboro Fourth of July Parade and Street Fair
Main Street, Wardsboro, Vt.
Street fair opens at 9 a.m., rain or shine. Parade kicks off at 10 a.m. on Route VT-100, turning by the Wardsboro Country Store and heading along Main Street. Satellite parking $4, with all-day shuttles.
Important note: Main Street is closed for vehicular traffic for several hours July 4th.
Parade, 50 arts, crafts, clothing, and wares vendors at the street fair, plus: chicken barbecue, burgers, hot dogs, ice cream, pie sale, bake sale, strawberry shortcakes, white elephant sale, raffles, children’s games, rubber ducky race, “skate jam” skateboard competition, antique quilt show, used-book sale, historical exhibits, and an art, antiques and collectibles tent sale.
Sign up for the parade
Anita Rafael lives and works in Wardsboro, Vt. Her feature articles on history, arts and culture, food, nature, people, and all things Vermont have appeared in various magazines and newspapers throughout Southern Vermont since 2007.