Fourth of July Celebrations: Eight Quintessentially American Independence Festivities

Fourth of July Celebrations: Seven Quintessentially American Independence Festivities

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It may be the most American of celebrations, but the Fourth of July is not welcomed the same way by everyone. Sure, the mention of Independence Day conjures up images of smoking grills, flag waving kids, and stars and stripes, but the ways of celebrating the holiday are as diverse as the people who live from sea to shining sea.

It may be the most American of celebrations, but the Fourth of July is by no means a static observance. Sure, just the mention of Independence Day conjures up images of smoking grills, flag waving kids, and stars and stripes, but the ways of celebrating the holiday are as diverse as the people who live from sea to shining sea.

Here are eight variations on the classic July Fourth celebration. Some traditions are modern and some have their roots in America's earliest days, but each typifies a different time and place that is quintessentially America.

Quintessential Fourth of July Destinations
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Fourth of July Celebrations: Eight Quintessentially American Independence Festivities

Located just outside New York City, the Historic Hudson Valley area is a cluster of six sites spanning various American historical periods. Among the sites, one famous name visitors will encounter is Washington Irving, who made his home at Sunnyside in Tarrytown. On the fourth, Sunnyside will host Independence Day 1851, giving visitors a glimpse into what the Fourth was like in Irving’s day. Join in with costumed guides, enjoy period music, dance country dances, and play a round of “town ball” – an antiquated form of Baseball. House tours, which last about 45 minutes, are also be available. Admission is $12 for adults and $6 for children.

A little further down the round and back in time in Croton-on-Hudson, Van Cortlandt Manor will be celebrating Independence Day 1801. The day kicks off with canon fire and a reading of the Declaration of Independence, with speeches and songs to follow. Visiting patriots can join up with military re-enactors for drill and muster practice and a hands-on introduction to life in a military camp. Affter the serious work is done, there will be 18th century dancing for all. House tours are run here as well and admission is also $12 for adults and $6 for children.

Though this living history institution’s focus is normally on the tumultuous years preceding our independence, on July 4, it’s all about the spirit of 1776.

Colonial Williamsburg is the place to celebrate the fourth in its purest form – with sights similar to those the original patriots might have experienced. In the town where Thomas Jefferson once studied, hear the Declaration of Independence read from the courthouse steps. The fife and drum corps – complete with snazzy tri-corner hats – will provide the soundtrack and at night fireworks will light up the Palace Green.

In the evening, enjoy dinner at the Governor’s Palace picnic. A menu of “chilled picnic favorites” will be served and entertainment will be provided in classic colonial style with musicians, dancers, storytellers and balladeers. Plus, there will be kids' activities, so the iPad faithful can brush up on their hoop rolling skills. Included in the experience ($55 for adults, $25 for kids) are a commemorative picnic blanket and a chance to march along with the fife and drum corps to a reserved fireworks viewing area.

A small town in central Idaho (population: 7,960), Hailey captures America’s western spirit with its annual Fourth of July celebration. Forget the blowout celebrations on the coasts; in Hailey, Independence Day means an antique fair, carnival, ice cream social, rodeo barbecue and, of course, a parade and fireworks. Says the Chamber of Commerce: “What could be more fun than sitting on Main, sipping your lemonade while watching our small town parade with your family and friends?”

Highlighting the town’s western appeal is the BlackJack Shootout Gang performance, which dramatizes the lawless days of lore. And, from July 2-4, Hailey puts on a “Days of the Old West” rodeo.   

Michigan’s Mackinac Island, in Lake Huron, harkens back to a simpler time. The Victorian era Grand Hotel, where evening wear is still required at dinner and leisurely afternoons are spent on the world’s longest porch, is a main draw here. No vehicles are allowed on the island – horse drawn carriages and bicycles dominate.

Visit Fort Mackinac, an original Revolutionary War fort, for events like the 38 gun salute, the soldier demonstrations, dancing and canon firing. At the Grand Hotel, a Fourth of July package is available that includes three nights accommodation, daily breakfast and dinner, a welcome reception, children’s carnivals, a cookout luncheon, a cocktail reception, an ice cream social and, of course, a fireworks view. That all comes for $1,899 per family, per room. (There is a five person limit per room.)

Party like its July 4, 1861 at St. Louis’ Old Courthouse, which will be decked out for the occasion in patriotic 19th century displays and surrounded by living history interpreters in their 19th-century finest conducting tours and presenting period music, speeches, firing demonstrations, radio-style plays and a reading of the Declaration of Independence. Guests will also have the chance to “vote” in an 1861 city election and “pay” their 1861 taxes.

Those who are ready to do their country proud can join up with the boys in blue. Union soldiers will be on hand to enlist men of all ages and offer training for newbies. Every hour on Luther Ely Smith Square join them for Civil War drills and weapons firing demonstrations. 

After reliving the July Fourth of old, head to Fair Saint Louis, which bills itself as America’s biggest birthday party. Held under the Gateway Arch, this is the place for live music (The Steve Miller Band, Maroon 5 and Montgomery Gentry will play this year), food, air shows, kids’ activities, and fireworks.

The center of Fourth of July gluttony since 1916, New York’s Coney Island is the home of the annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. Each year Nathan’s hosts the most epic cookout in NYC’s backyard, where 20 competitive eaters have 10 minutes to scarf as many of the iconic wieners as possible. Four-time contest winner Joey Chestnut holds the current record at 68 hot dogs and buns. Those with more reasonable appetites can pick up a dog or two at Nathan’s flagship stand on Surf Avenue and walk the boardwalk.

Beginning in the late 19th century, Coney Island was a destination for pleasure seekers with its amusement parks – Luna Park, Dreamland and Steeplechase Park being the big three contenders. Though the area witnessed a period of decline, the glory days are back thanks to the new Luna Park and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, where guests can still ride the original Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel from 1920.

The main draw of this central California town is its 1850s gold rush history. While always on display, it’s especially prominent during Columbia’s Gold Rush Days (every second Saturday) when special exhibits are opened and costumed interpreters ring the 49ers to life.

They’ve been celebrating American independence here from the early days – 1852 to be precise – when Columbia first began holding a parade. Attendees can decorate themselves, their pets, bikes or vintage cars and walk the historic route. Just watching is fine too. Afterwards, the townsfolk channels their inner pioneers with contests of skill: There is the greased pole climb, a nail pounding competition, a watermelon eating contest, a pie eating event, an egg relay race, an egg toss and a tug of war. Bring singles; entry costs $1. The day is capped off by a town dinner, featuring that California favorite, tri-tip barbecue. ($9.50 for adults, $6 for children.)

While in town, don’t miss out on the other old school activities like gold panning, treasure hunting, rock hounding, stagecoach rides and all manner of outdoor adventures.

In case you haven’t heard – or seen the new custom license plates proclaiming it – Bristol, Rhode Island has been home to the oldest, continuously running Fourth of July parade and celebration since 1785. The residents couldn't be prouder.

Get a dose of hometown Americana at this celebration, which kicks off well before the fourth. There’s concerts, a drum and bugle corps competition, a Miss Fourth of July pageant, a patriotic home decorating contest, a Fourth of July ball, tours of a visiting Navy ship and more. But the big shebang, the Military, Civic and Firemen’s parade, starts bright and early at 10:30 a.m. Spice things up by taking bets on who will take home the prizes for the Most Patriotic, Most Beautiful and Most Original, Top Military and Best in Parade floats.

Visitors should take note that, curiously, the fireworks are scheduled for the night of July 3.


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