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Let Freedom Ring Bristol Prepares To Welcome Thousands
photo by Bristol Historical SocietyOuthouse Races & July 4th are a Bristol tradition!
photo by Bristol Historical SocietyThis 1968 poster shows the long standing tradition of days of celebrations in Bristol
photo by Bristol Historical SocietyLocals like Gussie & Juna Perlee were always in the parade whether on horse or using horse power!
photo by Bristol Historical SocietyLocals and horses are a given at each July 4th celebration
photo by Bristol Historical SocietyPreserved in the scrapbooks of Gwen Deerborn, July Bristol celebrations come alive for over 50 years
Friday July 1, 2016
By Cookie Steponaitis
The flags fly high on the streets of Bristol and there is a hint of anticipation in the air. Thousands will flock this holiday weekend to the Bristol streets to be a part of the Fourth of July festivities that date back to the early 1950’s. The town will roll out the welcome mat starting July 3rd with festivities including fireworks, parades and Out House Races. Celebrating America’s coming of age is nothing new in Bristol and it is a weekend that locals look forward to.
“Records show that the plans for the first modern day July 4th celebration date back to 1954,” shared Bristol historian and resident Reg Dearborn. “It was combined with savings days where local merchants offered discounts, a full slate of baseball games and celebration festivities for children, exhibits and refreshments.” The Old Bristol Inn Stagecoach was brought out of retirement in 1955 offering rides. Bristol began a tradition that over the years has continued to grow and draw in local people and thousands of visitors.
The Old Bristol Inn Stagecoach which seats ten passengers on each side still comes out of retirement every year to transport the parades Grand Marshal in the parade.
Besides the activities on the green and Main Street, the original July 3-4 festivities occurred simultaneously with the Bristol A-Fair. Unique tidbits of information about the fair showcased rides, activities and games on the Bristol recreation fields and featured a Children’s Night where food, games, pony and horseback rides came before the fireworks, two baseball double headers and a band concert. Dearborn remembers these earlier July 4th celebrations and has access to a unique collection created by his mother Gwen Dearborn who was born in Lincoln. Gwen kept a series of in-depth scrapbooks on life in Bristol from 1942-1991 and carefully chronicled events including weddings, fires, funerals, new buildings and all the variations and changes to the July 4th Bristol lineup of activities.
Fireworks were also part of the festivities in 1954 and were sponsored by the Bristol American Legion Post and the Recreation Club. Dearborn’s scrapbooks document the crowning of A-Fair queens with titles like ‘Old Glory Sweetheart’, families at play and generations of people in attendance. Whether looking at photos from the 1960’s or a set as late as 2012, annual floats and horseback images document the annual appearance of Gussie and Juna Perlee among others. Gwen Dearborn’s scrapbooks have been carefully preserved by son Reg Dearborn and categorized by local historian Gerald Heffernan and offer a window into an event that continued to evolve and change over time. “The last A-Fair in Bristol was 1984,” explained Reg Dearborn. “It became quite an expense and it was all put on by volunteers. I remember my father-in-law going along with others in town down to Massachusetts to purchase the prizes for the carnival games and to get the agreement signed on the midway rides. Overtime it just became too much so the fair ended.”
One of the more famous parts of the July 4th celebration actually started by chance thirty-eight years ago when Rotarians Bill Payne and Larry Giles were talking one bitterly cold January New Year’s Eve. “We came up with the idea and basically dared each other to start making phone calls,” shared Giles. “The very first July 4th Outhouse Race was a Rotary project where people won bragging rights and that was about it. The outhouses were homemade and eventually that got out of hand so we starting making frames which the participants decorated and piloted. Who knew thirty eight years later we would still be at it!” The course has changed over the years and originally started where Middlebury National Bank is now ending at the Catholic Church. “We did not realize how uphill that was,” explained Giles. “We pooped people out real fast. A few years ago the course went around the park but making the corner proved dangerous. They are on castors you know. They have a mind of their own and go where they want.” One pilot is inside the outhouse and two pushers provide the go power as the often hilarious race takes off down Main Street.
There can be up to twelve Outhouses in the race; four heats with three in a heat and then the final race. Giles annually reminds all the contestants that it is more for laughs and they should not take it too seriously. “You are about to drag an outhouse down Main Street,” explains Giles. “Remember what you are pushing.” While Giles has not been a part of all of the July 4th events, he has been present for all since moving to the area in 1964 and only missed when Uncle Sam caught up to him and sent him on a little detour called Vietnam. Giles and Dearborn like all Bristol residents look forward with anticipation to this year’s celebration and the moments captured on cameras and in people’s hearts. For those who are there annually come prepared to have fun and those who are not quite sure what all the hubbub is about, come prepared to laugh, smile and celebrate America’s freedoms with a town that knows how to do it well and keeps the traditions alive from generation to generation celebrating not only freedom, but life in small town Vermont.
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