An ‘old-fashioned’ Fourth of July 

When John Bourgeois, director emeritus of “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band, and Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan first discussed the idea of resurrecting Rappahannock County’s “old-fashioned” Independence Day celebration, reflections of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia came to mind.

During three-plus decades of walking the news beat in the nation’s capital, Byrd was my go-to leading up to federal holiday celebrations. He was a historian at heart — and never one to mince words.

Americans, the senator admonished on one occasion, “have become jaded, gotten away from the old-fashioned patriotism that used to mark our federal holidays.” Independence Day included.

Yes, the senator acknowledged, the Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall was like nowhere else: larger, louder, and featuring a fireworks display to amaze and delight.

“But, in all honesty, I must admit that it is not my cup of tea,” said Byrd, who was 85 at the time. “No, I prefer to recall a simpler time and smaller celebrations back in the hills and hollows and rural towns of New Hampshire, and Vermont, and my own native West Virginia.”

And what were they like?

“The high school band would don its very best regalia, shine up its buttons and march down the dusty, small streets lined with moms and dads. Children perched atop shoulders so they could see and point fingers as the parade went by. The baton twirlers would twirl and step high. Young boys and girls would run alongside just to be part of the spectacle.

“Meanwhile, ice cream cones would drip, drip in the sultry heat [and] somewhere nearby, perhaps inside a church basement, cakes, pies, fried chicken, potato salad, coleslaw, baked beans and hot barbecue — and a cold Coca-Cola — awaited all who felt inclined to take part in the holiday feast.

“And those were the days when a Coca-Cola really tasted unique,” added Byrd, who was first elected to the West Virginia House in 1947. “Coca-Cola doesn’t taste today like it did during the days of those old 5-cent Coca-Colas of my boyhood.

“And in the evening,” he continued, “a fireworks display, lasting all of 10 or 15 minutes, and boasting at least three different colors in the night sky, would captivate all who could stand in a nearby tree or climb the lower branches of a not-too-high tree.

“There was pride and happiness on every face, then there was respectful silence when the Stars and Stripes were hoisted high and we all thanked God that we were free. The Stars and Stripes fluttering in the breeze, there is just nothing like it, to contemplate the Fourth of July.”

Byrd said he was certain that many small towns across America, no doubt similar in size to the villages of Rappahannock, still celebrated Independence Day in a patriotic fashion, and “in this vast, vast nation which has come to be so dissimilar from one coast to another … nothing is needed more than reminders of our common bonds and our common traditions.

“This nation is an ongoing experiment, making one out of many — ‘E Pluribus Unum’ — as our coins proclaim. Our intricate constitutional system of our government tries to combine diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, competing economic interests, and dissimilar geographic areas into some semblance of manageable commonality, while also attempting to guarantee individual freedoms without undermining the rule of law.”

But the senator opined that America’s families in this modern age are all too distracted — preoccupied not only with raising a family and earning a living but “coping daily with the increasing complexity of ordinary life. At times, we seem less like a cohesive nation and more like a collection of continually warring tribes.

“There is so much political sniping, so much game-playing, so much negativity and criticism that it seems as if the focus is always on what is wrong with America or what is faulty about the system,” he said. “We all need to stop and contemplate, and think, and remember that day, the Fourth of July, and ponder the miracle of Philadelphia, the republic — not the democracy — the republic of the United States.

“We can spend some time with children and grandchildren, turn off the TV sets — turn them off, and hopefully leave them off — and actually talk with one another. Maybe some can even find time to go stand on the sidewalk, view that small, local parade … and just for a moment be completely swept away by the sight of our glorious flag as it goes by.”

Byrd, no doubt, would feel at home here in this historic county seat of Washington as it celebrates the nation’s independence, camped out on a picnic blanket on the sweeping lawn of Avon Hall, surrounded by Rappahannock County families enjoying ice cream — and today’s version of Coca-Cola — while listening to Colonel Bourgeois, the modern-day John Philip Sousa, conducting his band of patriotic musicians.

In fact, he would be the first to stand and applaud.

John McCaslin
Rappahannock News Editor

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John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at