Marshfield’s Fourth of July parade has been a tradition since the 1880s. In 2016, at least 8,000 people are expected to attend.
MARSHFIELD – Each Fourth of July breaks with quiet intensity in Marshfield. It’s as if the small-town, awash in its star-spangled best, simply smiles. And waits. And knows what’s to come: After all, it’s seen the longest stream of Fourth of July celebrations west of the Mississippi River.
It’s the day I’m proudest to call this little town my own.
But for me, what it represents isn’t about a day. It’s a feeling, a small-town slice of Americana that I haven’t found anywhere else. It smacks of a sweet sense of community, a moment when its individuals stand united — not in political ideology, but in support of the good in their country. A day to put aside the wrong and focus on the right.
The town’s parade
Shriners are frequent (and popular) visitors during Marshfield’s Fourth of July parades.
As a kid, it was an unofficial goal to make it into the parade. It wasn’t difficult: After all, every church, civic, club, trash truck, bike and horse within (what seemed) the entire region showed up. Floats, each made with love, lined up for hours before. Kids scurried around them until the police car started its siren and led the way.
In my high school days, I was the drum majorette in the marching band. I will never forget the snare drums’ steady cadence, or the clear call of the trumpeting melody. And even if it wasn’t engrained on the ears of my memory, I’m reminded each July as I listen to the band, marching and playing the same rendition of “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”
The tune also reminds of the people who lined the street, fanning themselves against the summertime stickiness. They were friends, even though we might not know their names.
As we turned the corner and reached the square, we hit those notes just a little bit louder and a little bit prouder. And the crowd, awash in red, white and blue, clapped and cheered as a choir of flags sang in the breeze. Such a love of country — and your community — is what you do in a small town. It’s part of who you are.
“It’s the most traditional thing we have,” says Sara Herren, coordinator of the Marshfield Area Chamber of Commerce, of the parade. “We’ve always been so proud of it.”
Then it was our turn to watch. Kids ran into the street for handfuls of far-flung candy; neighbors passed out VBS flyers by the hundreds; smiling politicians shook hands; and clip-clopping horses all paraded around the square.
I love this tradition. But if I’m being honest, it’s something that occasionally makes me ponder if our title as “longest parade west of the Mississippi River” actually refers to the parade’s length, not its longevity. Because this often takes hours. As in, more than one.
And this year, “it’s going to be extra long,” says Sara Herren, coordinator of the Marshfield Area Chamber of Commerce, noting she expects around 300 entries. It’s election year — something that automatically makes the entry list longer, since Marshfield is a common stop for politicians during their campaigns.
And on top of that, Herren thinks there may be at least 8,000 people in attendance — an impressive feat, considering the town’s population at the last census was just more than 6,000.
But while impressive, it’s not surprising.
“Half the people coming to the parade don’t live in Webster County,” says Don Rost, a longtime local resident who has been coming to the celebrations for decades. Instead, those people come because of a connection.
“Almost anyone who ever lived in Marshfield for any length of time remember these celebration with nostalgia and, even if gone away to far places, will return for this one event,” wrote C.E. Boulson in 1980. “It is something that must be experienced to be appreciated, an event that strengths and deepens an awareness of the birth of a free nation.”
A historic celebration
Parades of years past: This view, looking southwest, is shown around 1910. Note the float in the foreground advertising flour. (Courtesy of Randy Clair)
It’s likely that those people’s forefathers were present at Marshfield’s earliest celebrations. Some say that earliest year was 1880: An ordinary year to most, it was special to Marshfield. Less than three months prior, nearly the entire town was destroyed by a cyclone.
Yet if dates are to be believed, the town still found reason to celebrate that summer — and it virtually never stopped. Those earliest celebrations were all-day affairs, ones that began early and kicked off with a parade and political program.
And then there was food.
“There was a dinner on the ground,” recorded The History of Webster County. “Everyone was welcome. Baskets of fried chicken, ham, cakes and pies of all kind appeared from all directions. (Volunteers) sliced and served the hot, barbecued meat, the bread and pickles … it was delicious. What a feast of good things to eat, accompanied by good-natured jokes and lots of laughter. … After dinner, there was a band concert, more speeches, reminding and visiting. Beaus and belles kept the circle swing going at a stead rate while the fiddlers played old fashioned love songs (no crooners in the long, long ago). Many a romance had its beginning in the swing that afternoon.”
Especially special moments
Paul Watters walks down Crittenden Street as he passes out copies of the “Peerade Xtra” in July 1947. Published by The Marshfield Mail, the satirical news bulletin had a humorous take on community life, such as slightly mixing up names of citizens and including mild jokes. It was published annually beginning in 1921 and continued for decades. (Left, courtesy of Dr. Tommy Macdonnell; right, courtesy of Randy Clair )
It would take far too long to describe the unique aspects, both come and gone, that have highlighted the celebrations over the years. However, there are a couple of years that mustn’t go without note: The first was in 1955, when Webster County celebrated its centennial with a blow-out celebration.
I wasn’t there for those festivities, but I wish I had been. The four-day affair took things back to the county’s founding in 1855, complete with 1800s dress-up days, the construction of a log cabin on the town’s square, a special children’s parade, a queen contest and a play. And many of its organizers were “Brothers of the Brush,” men who grew a beard for the celebration to avoid paying a fine or going to “jail.”
“Brothers of the Brush” gather during the centennial celebration in 1955, a time when men were required to grow a beard or buy a shaving permit to keep from being thrown in “jail.” (Courtesy of the Webster County Historical Museum)
Fifty years later — in 2005 — many of those unique activities became traditions during the county’s sesquicentennial celebration. I was there for that one, and I’m so thankful I was.
Just as their fathers had, men grew beards for weeks before; many individuals dressed in period dresses and suits; and royalty was crowned and charged to reign until the bicentennial in 2055. And when that time comes, I’ll grab my tiara and volunteer: The sesquicentennial was so much fun that I’ve already appointed myself to the planning committee.
President George H. Bush and his wife, Barbara, visited Marshfield for the Fourth of July in 1991. (Courtesy of the Springfield News-Leader)
Things are different at Fourth of July celebrations these days. Instead of staying all day and into the night, most people scatter soon after the parade has finished. It’s something that elder generations tend to lament; it’s easy to look at the past with nothing but fondness, and Marshfield definitely isn’t perfect today. But from my perspective, its passionate patriotism hasn’t disappeared with time.
And I believe the president agrees with me.
In 1991, President George H. Bush came to Marshfield on the Fourth of July. He came seeking a place that lived small-town values; that day, he said he found “the heartbeat of the entire United States of America” in the community. He spoke from a podium on the square, the same spot of so many celebrations.
In his speech — witnessed by around 30,000 people — he said that “some people have called this the best little town on earth, and I sure know why.”
And so do I.
Want to attend?
Marshfield’s 136th Fourth of July parade kicks off on July 4 at 10 a.m. After it’s over, the Finley River Boys will give a concert on the courthouse lawn. Concessions will be for sale, and kid-friendly activities will also be found on the square. Politicians have been requested to stay after the parade, and report to their party-specific booth so visitors can find them to chat.