While Independence Day has been celebrated in Sonoma since at least the mid-19th Century, our first 4th of July parade as we know it today – which marched once again in grand style last Tuesday – started only 53 years ago in 1963.
It actually has its roots in 1962 when the Sonoma Community Center, led by Jerry Casson, sponsored what she called a “Real old-fashioned 4th of July celebration.” It featured patriotic decorations, historical tableaus, including then Superintendent of Schools John Glaese and two friends costumed as “The Spirit of ’76” from the famous painting by Archibald MacNeal Willard.
There was a conscious effort to make the celebration appear as it might have a century before.
Sonomans were encouraged to attend in costume. There were booths selling flags and other red, white and blue decorations. Events included chorale presentations, games and a barbecue supervised by Henri Maysonnave and Gail Fehrensen.
The next year, in 1963, the center sponsored the first ever local 4th of July parade. The emphasis continued to be on keeping the celebration and parade “Old Fashioned” in spirit and participation. In fact, no vehicles, except genuine antique cars were allowed in the parade, which was led by John Glaese and company as the Spirit of 76.
The parade started on East Spain Street near where the Trinity Episcopal Church is. It proceeded west to First Street East, and then down First Street East, turning left onto East Napa Street and proceeded back to the Community Center. The 20 entries included local kids with their pets and on decorated bicycles, a town band led by Richard Schneider, and a few old cars and folks in patriotic costume. It was like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Over the next decades the parade grew in size and popularity. In 1989 there were 90 entries, in what was recognized all over the Bay Area as one of the best classic small town parades in Northern California.
The images of those parades are stacked and blended in my memory, including the fact that as the number of entries grew, the parade got longer. The problem was that there was still only one town band. Undaunted, the Community Center came up with a way for the local musicians to go around twice, the second time in crazy costumes and billed as “The Other Town Band.”
John Glaese and the Spirit of ’76 continued to lead the parade for many years. One of the funniest additions, however, was from former Brit Chris Stokeld and his son, Tony, who operated Ma Stokeld’s Meat Pie Shop off First Street East in Place des Pyrenees.
Chris and son, dressed as British Redcoats, wounded and bedraggled, limped along behind the Spirit of ’76 with a sign that read, “At least we fought fair.”
As we entered a new century, our charming and quaint little hometown celebration began to suffer from its own popularity. Crowds grew, good viewing spots were hard to get unless you camped out the night before or very early the morning of the parade. The management and logistics overwhelmed the dedicated but small staff and volunteers of the Sonoma Community Center.
Our little old-fashioned hometown parade was simply too big for them to manage and they gave it up.