Manatee History Matters: Palmetto has decades of Fourth of July celebrations

July 1, 2014 

Here at the Palmetto Historical Park, we've spent the past month building shelves, installing better lighting, refreshing exhibits, cleaning -- and treasure hunting.

With a lack of adequate storage space, we often joke about the dangers involved in opening the closets in our historical buildings: "Don't open that door without survival supplies! You might start an avalanche of artifacts!"

While this may be a slight exaggeration, there really are antiques tucked into pretty much every hidey-hole on the property, including some we had no idea existed.

While this situation is a museum curator's nightmare, it is also a treasure-hunter's dream.

In that vein, this past week I tripped (not quite literally) over some old newspapers containing all kinds of interesting stories about past Fourth of July celebrations in Palmetto. As we daily watch the construction progress on the restrooms in nearby Sutton Park, racing to be ready in time for this year's festivities, it occurred to me I'm probably not the only one interested in the way our community's Independence Day celebrations have evolved over the years.

One of the constants I noticed is Fourth of July cele

brations in Manatee County tend to revolve around the water. On July 4, 1958, the first Aquarama was held in the Manatee River complete with boat races and a ski-a-thon. This event attracted 2,000 spectators despite a mid-afternoon "cloudburst (that) scattered the crowds." Unsurprisingly, afternoon showers also seem to be a constant in July for at least the last 50 years!

Music and dancing are also a common denominator in local Independence Day celebrations.

The night before 1958's Aquarama, the Palmetto Jaycees implemented a dance that was reportedly a "big success." By 1979, the North Manatee County Business Association figured out how to draw crowds to their July Fourth Extravaganza, according to an article in the June 28, 1979, Palmetto Times. The article describes an addition to the festivities: "To add a modern touch, Keith and Steve Albritton are slated to spin records for a disco dance contest in the late afternoon."

Music on the Fourth is a tradition the Palmetto's Community Redevelopment Agency is keeping alive today. This Friday's festival in Sutton Park will feature a free concert with performances by Goodbyeddie, Jake Castro Band and Scotty McCreery.

The July 4, 1979, Extravaganza made an effort to include "something for everyone," including hayrides, patriotic speeches, a "gigantic firework display over the Manatee River," three-legged races, horseshoes, a greased-pole-climbing competition and a greased-pig catching contest.

Upon reading this scintillating list of activities, I can't help but ask myself: Why did "greased up" competitions go out of style?

First off, there's the opportunity for someone to get hurt, which for some reason always ups the fun factor (especially when there is little likelihood of serious injury). If you doubt the appeal of this slapstick humor in spectator sports, just look at the popularity of shows such as "Wipeout" and "America's Funniest Home Videos."

"Greased-up" competitions also come with serious fiscal perks: other than a couple cans of Crisco, all that was really needed was a pole (already a fixture in most of our parks) and a pig.

Now livestock can be expensive, but Palmetto has always had citizens in the agricultural field willing to support a community event. What I find especially cool and thrifty is they didn't even have to come up with a prize for whoever managed to catch the slippery hog -- they just rewarded the winner by letting them keep the pig!

Make sure to stop by Sutton Park this Friday to be a part of our 50-plus-year legacy of community-centered Independence Day celebrations. Don't let me scare you into thinking the CRA festivities on the Fourth will be too old-fashioned: While we may still espouse a small-town, country-quaint way of life north of the river, there will be no slicked-up swine at this event. Instead there will be the modern equivalent: Bouncy houses for kids!

Tori Chasey Edwards, curator of the Palmetto Historical Park, enjoys horrifying schoolchildren by explaining the nature and use of chamber pots. She calls it education. Email: tori.edwards 941-723-4991

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