This Small Rhode Island Town Hosts One of America’s Oldest Independence Day Celebrations

Camille Teixeira has been attending Fourth of July celebrations in her hometown of Bristol, Rhode Island, since she was a child, but she still gets chills during the annual parade.

She describes the “big, glorious celebration” as beginning with a flyover, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem. As general chairman of this year’s festivities, Teixeira will have the best seat in the house to watch the massive crowd come together to celebrate military veterans, police, and firefighters.

“You have such pride for honoring all these folks,” she said. “I stand there and I cry through the national anthem, and it’s just a wonderful experience.”

The annual celebration in the waterfront community of Bristol began long before the Fourth of July became a federal holiday, reportedly making it the nation’s oldest continuous Independence Day celebration. Teixeira said the small town is home to about 23,000 people, but more than 200,000 are expected to attend the town’s full slate of Fourth of July events, which kicked off on Flag Day.

How Long Has the Celebration Been Happening?

The celebrations in Bristol started in 1785 when Revolutionary War veteran Rev. Henry Wight of the First Congregational Church conducted the first of what’s known as the patriotic exercises, an event honoring military veterans, according to the town’s website. Bristol’s parade is believed to have begun in the early 1800s.

Some Americans began celebrating July 4 in 1777, the year after the Declaration of Independence was signed, but the holiday didn’t become more widely observed until after the War of 1812. By the 1870s, Independence Day had become the most important non-religious holiday for many Americans, and on June 28, 1870, Congress passed a law making Independence Day a federal holiday.

Teixeira said she has a long personal history with the celebrations. Both she and her mother have been runners-up for Miss Fourth of July, and participating in the pageant led her to meet her former husband on the USS Newport. In 2012, Teixeira said her father was the chief marshal of the parade, and seeing the work the city does behind the scenes prompted her to get more involved in the planning of the events.

“We are celebrating 239 years, and I’m ecstatic to be part of history and to be part of such a wonderful tradition of bringing our community together,” she said.

How Does Bristol Celebrate the Fourth of July?

In Bristol, the annual celebrations get underway on June 14. After the Flag Day ceremony comes a nightly concert series at Independence Park, a Fourth of July ball, the Orange Crate Derby, and numerous other events, Teixeira said. The town still holds traditional events such as the patriotic exercises, but the planning committee has also added new activities such as a pickleball tournament to keep the celebrations “fresh and different,” she said.

On Wednesday, Teixeira will welcome a U.S. Navy ship into Bristol’s picturesque harbor with Sen. Jack Reed and will gift the ship’s chief officer with a Rhode Island flag before watching fireworks. Finally, the festivities will culminate with the 2.5-mile Military, Civic, and Firemen’s Parade on July 4.

In past years, residents have come as early as 4 a.m. rain or shine to stake out a prime spot along the parade route and have decked out their houses with elaborate displays, including a nearly life-size replica of the Iwo Jima Memorial. Teixeira said she attends every event the town holds in the run-up to Independence Day, but “the parade has always been near and dear to my heart.”

Prepping for One of the Nation’s Oldest July 4th Celebrations

Preparations for the events begin nearly a year in advance, said Teixeira, who has been on the planning committee for 11 years. The committee has more than 100 people and over 35 subcommittees that help pull the activities together. More than 55 additional volunteers, including several of Teixeira’s family members, help do everything from setting up water coolers and arranging golf carts to cleaning up trash in Independence Park each night.

Teixeira said some of the events serve as fundraisers to replenish the celebration’s half a million dollar budget.

“It’s a full production, and we’ll start this all over on July 6,” Teixeira said.

Volunteering on the committee is a big responsibility on top of her full-time job as a senior risk manager in cybersecurity, but the end result is worth the long hours the team puts in.

“The excitement, it’s like being a little kid again, but you’re putting it on for thousands of people,” she said. “And it’s just pure, pure joy after all the sacrifice.”

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