When Castroville marks the anniversary of the nation’s independence, it does so with a parade that’s as old-fashioned as they come.
With its historic plastered-wall homes, white picket fences, and residents who can trace their roots back to the earliest immigrants from Alsace, France, the farming town founded in 1844 on the banks of the Medina River treasures the values and traditions of the Old Country and new.
In patriotic attire and with umbrellas to block the summer sun, hundreds will line up folding chairs and blankets along the one-mile parade route that circles the heart of downtown. Floats will pass the nursing home, the old Rainbow Theater and shuttered meat market, a former saloon, the convent, a steepled church, and historic homes with names like the Pingenot Haus and Geyer-Rihn Haus.
“It’s more old-fashioned because [the parade route passes by] so many of the historic homes we have in less than a three-mile-square area,” said Bonnie Keller, one of the two original parade planners and owner of a home built in 1869.
The ritual of the Fourth of July parade is repeated in communities across the nation – from Bristol, R.I., a city that holds the record as having the oldest parade, dating back to 1785, to Arlington, Texas, which puts on one of the nation's largest, to quirky and local neighborhood pet parades.
First, biggest, and four-legged aside, there’s nothing like a homegrown street pageant to take us back to our small-town, Americana roots.
Castroville’s first official Fourth of July parade in 2001 was made up of about 150 area youth on bicycles. A year later, it rained on the parade, and the town of fewer than 3,000 people was evacuated due to flooding. But because the show must go on, the event was rescheduled for Labor Day weekend two months later.
That year, the 43 parade entries were new and vintage John Deere-green tractors, straw covered flat-bed trailers, classic cars, flag-adorned bicycles, and men, women, and children on horseback, go-carts, and little red wagons. Judges awarded handmade rosette ribbons to winning entries.
The parade followed the same path it does today – from Paris Street to Constantinople Street, over to Mexico Street and down Petersburg Street.
Castroville's mayor at the time, Bob Hancock, asked Keller to organize a parade, and she teamed up with friend Priscilla Garrett to organize the event until three years ago, when the Medina Valley Independent School District took over.
“We always had a theme centered around simple living – I think that was part of what makes it old-fashioned,” Garrett said. “We always had a grand marshal, and there were free hot dogs, watermelon, and drinks in the square after complements of local businesses.”
They have only a few rules for entrants: Anyone can be in it because, “it’s not a Castroville parade, it’s a Fourth of July parade,” Keller explains to people. But participants must line up at the right time and place. Emergency services like the fire department go first, so they can get back to work. Horses go last, for obvious reasons.
Keller recalled with a laugh the time that a San Antonio man called in and signed up his family to ride horses in the parade. She welcomed him, but when the man arrived with his children, excited to participate, he wanted to know where the horses were.
“We don’t provide the horses!” she told the city slicker.
On the morning of each of the 13 parades they organized, Keller and Garrett mounted their bicycles and rode around town setting up traffic barriers. Parade watchers began to assemble around 7 a.m. to choose a shady spot along the route. Keller and Garrett took their places at the starting lines to direct floats and marchers, then pedaled on bikes behind the last float to announce the grand finale.
“That’s the other thing. People know everybody in the parade,” Garrett said of the small community. Parents and grandparents who once marched in the parade now watch their children and grandchildren. And everyone looked forward to the Ruiz Family float, she said, because they “go all out” every year.
While Keller and Garrett instituted a few changes over the years – like eliminating a welcome speech in the square after one mayor delayed the parade with a lengthy address – the biggest changes came when the school district took over in 2014. Probably the greatest difference is that now the high school band and cheerleaders are a bigger part of the parade.
Celebrations have grown this year into four days of events including a fun run, pet fair, chili and brisket cook-off, street dance, concert, drone races, a carnival, and a fireworks display. The City kicks in $10,000, according to Arnie Dolasse of the city’s Economic Development Council, but events are organized by Michelle Brown of the Castroville Chamber of Commerce and 35 volunteers working with the Council and area businesses.
Nevertheless, the parade, in all its red, white, and blue glory, still files past the white-picket fence of Keller’s pitched-roof, Alsatian home where her family gathers on the tidy front porch and hands out water to passersby.
“It brings people together,” she said. “That’s what makes it feel like a hometown, old-fashioned parade.”
If you go: The parade begins at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, July 4. Castroville is 25 miles west of downtown San Antonio.