It Takes a Village

...of Volunteers to Celebrate July Fourth

Kingston Fourth of JulyLegend has it that Kingston’s Fourth of July parade is the longest continually running Independence Day parade west of the Mississippi. And while the organizers may not be able to verify that statement, they challenge any town to prove it wrong.

Today, the parade draws an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 revelers annually. Even a pandemic couldn’t stop the tradition — a handful of celebrants gathered in 2020 to lead a train of 15 or so cars and pickups through downtown, with American flags proudly flying.

No one knows exactly when the parade itself started, but the Kingston Historical Society does have photographs documenting celebrations back to 1890. And there are plenty of current day volunteers to share their experience dating back to the 1950s.

Kingston local resident and chief volunteer Dave Wetter was born in Indianola and experienced the parade as a child. After retiring, he offered to help with the event in 2001. He recalls being told, “That’s how it works here in Kingston — you’ve got to volunteer.” Wetter started helping set up “Tiny Town,” one of the day’s many attractions, designed to entertain children before and after the parade.

Kingston Fourth of JulyBack then, Tiny Town was created to mimic downtown Kingston with 8-by-8-foot wood structures sponsored by local businesses, whose names were painted on the front. Each “building” featured a different child activity. But the annual maintenance and labor became a bit much for the volunteers and Tiny Town morphed into today’s version that features bouncy houses, face paintings, a scavenger hunt and other fun activities.

Wetter led the move of Tiny Town from Kingston’s Kola Kole Park to the much more spacious and comfortable Village Green in 2018. After 20 years of tireless work, he stepped away from his role with the July Fourth committee last year, so that he could relax and enjoy the day like he did as a child in the ’50s. Inarguably, no one has contributed more to the success of Kingston’s Independence Day celebration than Wetter.

Kingston Fourth of JulyRunning from the 8 a.m. pancake breakfast to the 10 p.m. fireworks, the celebration takes a village of volunteers to bring it together. From Wetter’s cajoling of locals to work at and put together Tiny Town, to the “herding cats” act (as Wetter calls it) of organizing the parade itself, to chasing down the $60,000-plus in donations, through to the fireworks and much more, the town of Kingston magically comes together for this wonderful event.

It even takes the cooperation of Washington State Department of Transportation to hold one ferry run. That’s right, for years now, one ferry run is held so that the parade can march its 50 floats through the quaint downtown. The parade has to run like clockwork as there’s only exactly one hour, from noon to 1 p.m., to get the floats on and off their arduous 0.6-mile parade route on State Route 104 so as not to hold up a second ferry run.

Kingston Fourth of JulyWhimsical Floats

Classic small-town Americana is represented in the 50 parade floats. They include the prerequisite fire department, political candidates, local festival queens, local dignitaries, Boy Scouts, high school bands, historic cars and trucks and all the rest. Volunteers hand out candy to children seated in chairs that are lined up the night before on the sidewalks to get the best view.

Perhaps the most anticipated float is always a mystery. A local group of friends and family members organize the most creative, outlandish and fun float each year. On July 3 last year, mysterious banners went up on telephone poles, proclaiming “Elvis Lives.” With a photo of “The King,” residents were clued in on this group’s 2022 theme. On the 4th, this group of more than 40 locals rock ‘n’ rolled down the parade route decked out in everything Elvis, from capes to sequins. Sitting in an open vintage Cadillac were Elvis and Priscilla Presley on their “wedding day,” with their entourage in tow.

Kingston Fourth of JulyThe mad scientist behind this mayhem, Lisa Hope, shared a wonderful origin story. Girl meets boy, girl marries boy, Kingston gets an amazing float every year. In 2002, Hope and her fiancé, both huge fans of the Kingston parade, were planning their wedding. A friend suggested they join all the fun and festivities of the town by marrying on the July 4 and entering the entire wedding party, post nuptials, as a float in the parade. They did and this became the group’s first, but far from their last float entry.

The group took a few years off, and then their antics went full tilt. Over the years, their efforts have been wild, including themes such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Gidget Goes to Kingston — with sand, surfboards and the classic water-skiing show with women in vintage swimwear stacked two high. A Statue of Liberty float (which had to quickly be lowered when the height estimates disagreed with roadside trees) had young children dressed as various immigrants and Betsy Ross sewing a flag.

“We always try and do something that seems a little bit more on point for us,” Hope says.

Other floats have included the Yellow Submarine, The Love Boat and the Great Kingzoni Traveling Circus. Oh, and the group have a policy that the day begins with wearing vintage red, white and blue clothing to the opening event, the delicious pancake breakfast. This group brings so much character to the event!

Kingston Fourth of JulyOther Activities

One of the event’s longest-running sponsors, the Kingston Cove Yacht Club, is responsible for the pancake breakfast. Each year, the club sponsors the breakfast along with a “Free Hot Dog for Kids” after the parade and a beer, wine and spirits garden from 1 to 9 p.m.

In years past, Kingston’s celebration has included vintage activities like a talent show, logging competitions, bathtub races and slug races. Another modern activity is a “ball race” sponsored by the Kingston Beautification Committee and the Rotary. This fundraiser for the Kingston’s beloved hanging flower baskets takes place on Central Avenue immediately after the parade. Balls are sold for $1 each and run three heat races, with each winner running a final race. There are monetary prizes for the top three final winners.

To bridge the activities from 5:30 until the grand fireworks show, the Port of Kingston’s Mike Wallace Park rocks every year with local musicians, sponsored by the town’s iconic and delicious restaurant, Kingston Ale House. The music is a popular feature counting down to the fireworks, usually serving up at least two bands while people dance on the grass at the park.

Not only is volunteerism in Kingston popular and necessary to activate the many town activities and fundraisers critical to the town, but being a volunteer is proudly considered almost mandatory. Another longtime volunteer is local stalwart and Kingston Ale House proprietor Tony Clark, the Fourth of July committee chairman. His calm and steady hand deftly leads the committee through ebbs and flows and through successes and obstacles.

Kingston Fourth of JulyBefore moving to Kingston in 2013, Clark and his wife, Kim, were regular boaters who visited the Kingston Ale House for food, cheer and karaoke. (He liked it so much, he ended up buying the place.) Their Realtor® showed them around town, and asked, “What are you doing on the 4th?” to which Clark replied, “Eating hot dogs and drinking beer, like everyone else. Why?” The Realtor® was a volunteer in the parade and asked if Clark would help. By the end of the day, Clark had helped place trash cans along the route and was in the parade carrying the huge flag of the Realtors®.

“It was something like a Norman Rockwell painting — perfect small-town America,” he recalls.

After a few years, he took over the fireworks planning, a big learning curve that included traveling to Oregon to negotiate with the pyrotechnics company and understanding all the regulations. Three years ago, to the benefit of Kingston, he took on the role of chairman.

Both Clark and Wetter said that when one member is stepping down after years of service, it seems that magically, another volunteer, ideally suited for that role, walks through the door. It’s what Kingston residents do. And it takes months of planning and volunteering — and most volunteers miss seeing the parade they work so hard to deliver.

Kingston Fourth of JulyClark ran off the numbers. It takes at least 15 people to organize and run the parade’s 50 floats. Tiny Town takes about 50 people, many of them high schoolers. The July Fourth committee has 10. The Kingston Cove Yacht Club operates three events, so they are in for 50-plus. With the ball race, the music in the park and other events, the total volunteer count is pushing 200. And with all of the $60,000-plus raised through donations, it could be said that the donors are volunteering as well, so add a couple thousand to that number.

Culminating the day is the spectacular fireworks show over Appletree Cove. Thousands gather at the Mike Wallace Park, around the port, at Arness Park and at homes around the cove to witness this colorful show. The dazzling exhibition runs a full 30 minutes starting at 10 p.m.

Kingston’s annual Fourth of July celebration is bathed in Americana. From the pancake breakfast to the fireworks, the day is chockablock full of fun festivities for children and adults of all ages. And while the locals treasure the day and its history, they also welcome neighboring towns. So, whether you live anywhere from Gig Harbor or Hansville or points farther, join Kingston to celebrate the birth of our nation.