July 3, 2010

Since 1937, one of the best 4th of July parades in the U.S.

By Julie A. Jacob

Millions of Americans were out of work. People worried about war in distant countries. Some citizens staged protests to express their anger at the government. Partisan political feelings ran high.

No, it wasn’t 2010. It was 1937, the year that Racine held its first Fourth of July parade. It was a time of tense relations between labor and management and, in an effort to boost city morale, community leaders organized the inaugural Fourth of July parade. It was known then as the Goodwill parade in recognition of its goal to create goodwill between management and labor.
for kids, about American values
Ever since, for 73 years, Racine has held its Fourth of July parade and fireworks display through wars, recessions, and cultural upheaval. John Adams, who in a letter to his wife prophetically wrote that America’s independence from Great Britain should be marked with “pomp and parade,” would be pleased if he could see how much Racine has taken the “parade” part to heart. Racine’s Independence Day parade (which decades later was renamed the Racine 4th Fest) attracts about 100,000 spectators each year. In 2008, USA Today included Racine on its list of the 10 best places to be on the Fourth of July.
Parade time, route and entries are here
But what does it take to stage the Fourth of July parade each year? RacinePost decided to find out.

Organizing the parade and fireworks is a year-'round effort, said Mark R. Hinkston, this year’s president of Racine 4th Fest. The parade and fireworks are run by a volunteer, 28-member board, which meets at least once a month. The board, in turn, is divided into 13 committees, including executive, parade, fireworks, long-range planning, funding, publicity, and legal and insurance committees. The committees also meet at least monthly. Representatives from the police department, city council, and parks and recreation department serve as non-voting liaisons on the board.

“It is much more time consuming than people think,” said Hinkston, who has been involved in Racine 4th Fest for 10 years. “Many members spend hundreds of hours a year devoted to all the various committees and parade functions.”

The parade committee picks the theme by January. This year’s theme is “July 4th —Our Family Reunion.” Groups that want to be in the parade must complete an application form that includes a detailed description of the entry, the type and length of vehicles that will be driven in the parade, and proof of insurance. No entries deemed overtly political or controversial are accepted. A driver or representative from each entry must attend a briefing session a few weeks before the parade.

Once the deadline passes for parade entries, the parade committee sets the line-up of the approximately 150 entries. The committee has to make sure, for example, that bands and floats are spaced evenly throughout the parade and that two entries with animals are not next to each other.

It costs about $50,000 to produce both the parade and the fireworks display, said Hinkston. Most of the funding comes from corporate donations, with the remaining money raised from city and private donations.

On the day of the parade, the board members, assisted by about 75 additional volunteers, direct the line-up of entries, staff the judging stand, drive golf carts up and down the 2.6-mile parade route to make sure all is running smoothly and collect donations, and do all the dozens of other things that have to be taken care of to run a parade.

The best part of working on the parade, noted Hinkston, is “the camaraderie that comes from working with the other board members to put on the best event possible.”

The toughest part, he said, is finding the money to produce the parade and fireworks every year.

“We depend almost completely on corporate and private donations for funding and so normally this is an ongoing challenge. One would think that with the economy the way it has been that this would be especially problematic now but thankfully people have stepped up this year and donations have not seemed to wane.”

It’s also a challenge to please everyone in a crowd of 100,00 spectators, he said. Some people want more bands, some want fewer; some say that the parade is too long, others that it is too short; some gripe about the gaps in the line-up, while other welcome the chance for a bathroom break,

The Racine 4th Fest board takes comment and critiques on the parade seriously and welcomes suggestions for improving the parade, Hinkston said. Contact information for board members is posted online here.

While every part of the parade may not be to everyone’s liking, a little perspective helps, he noted.

“There are always going to be things that people do not like or complain about, but we should be grateful for what we have,” said Hinkston. “We should look around and feel fortunate – for example, 1,000 miles to the south, our fellow citizens along the gulf coast are struggling immensely. Our board members collectively spend hundreds of hours a year devoted to each and every aspect of the parade and have everyone’s best interests at heart.”