Of Patriotism and Tradition

Celebrating the Fourth of July Local Style in Colonial Williamsburg

Since the first Independence Day fireworks display in 1777, illuminations have symbolized a significant tradition of freedom. John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, in 1776, that “the country should mark the occasion of our victory with a display of munitions across our skies.” Philadelphia did just that, in remarkable fashion, culminating with thirteen rocket blasts to honor the original colonies. The tradition holds strong here, in the former capital of the Virginia Colony, two hundred and forty-three years later. Joe Straw, of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, explains that Pyrotechnico, based in New Castle, Pennsylvania has overseen the demonstration for Colonial Williamsburg these past several years. Nine hundred and eighty-six charges are prepared for the celebratory display, which lasts for approximately twenty minutes.

For many visitors and locals, the fireworks signify much more than simply “bombs bursting in air.” Something as spectacular as an explosive display creates a lasting memory for us at an early age. The faces of awestruck children, illuminated with colorful starbursts, serve as a reminder of the life preserved by our brave military service members. One veteran, and local historian shared what celebrating the Fourth of July has meant to him and his family. Tom Patton, retired Air Force and owner of Aldrich House Bed and Breakfast in historic Williamsburg, recounts his first Independence Day in 1973 just a few blocks from where he now lives. “I was living in Ft. Lauderdale at the time and had taken two weeks of leave to vacation in Colonial Williamsburg. I remember staying three nights in the very room Thomas Jefferson occupied, at the Market Square Tavern, while he was studying law with George Wythe. That morning of the fourth [of July] I can recall being awoken by the fife and drum corps marching down the street.”

Patton is a second-generation military service member whose very namesake is steeped in rich history. Thomas Aldrich Patton’s earliest Fourth of July memories stemmed from living in a suburb of Washington D.C., in Maryland, and the family making a whole day affair culminating with fireworks on the monument grounds. The Patton family would spend most of the day at the Glen Echo Amusement Park, which has since been torn down. Games and rides would occupy their attention until it was time to scout their plot for the evening festivities that often included a military band preceding the grand display. He and his siblings looked forward to games and a bomb-pop treat before sunset. The adults made a custom of toasting the evening with champagne, and all these memories helped shape the traditions he now carries on with his friends, family, and guests here in Williamsburg.

Tom and his wife Susan see themselves as unofficial concierges to out-of-town guests. In 1998, the couple began sharing the traditions from Tom's childhood with family and guests. A big breakfast complete with eggs, sausage, bacon, hot cakes, and fresh fruit fuels the morning trek to the presentation of Colonial Williamsburg’s “Salute to the States” program that begins around ten in the morning. The renowned fife and drum corps and firing of artillery kick off a day of festivities. Around two in the afternoon, the Patton’s pull a red wagon of wares to their scouted spot on the lawn of the Governor’s Palace. “We started marking off our little area with brass lanterns, and year after year locals and visitors would remember us and stop by to catch up and say hello,” Tom shared. Throughout the afternoon and evening, friends and family would cover tables with platters of Cheese Shop sandwiches, pots of chili, ginger cakes from the Raleigh Tavern, cider punch, and of course chilled champagne. “It’s an opportunity to be like tourists again, every year!” Tom exclaimed.

The significance of Williamsburg’s role in the events leading up to the revolution is carefully protected and celebrated through the ‘Resolved’ program, shared each year at the Capitol building. Patton often reiterates that “Williamsburg is more than some pretty little eighteenth-century village to walk through. It is rich with real history. It’s not just some prop for early American history.” Local patriots and historians hold these truths in high regard as the backdrop of fireworks and festivities encourage a shared experience of our hometown history. Over the years that red wagon was upgraded, and a second added to the fleet for carrying tables, chairs, and games for those joining the Patton party. Be sure to stop by and share your story when you visit.

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