July_Photo_4Photos from the Afton Historical Museum; permission granted by Stan Ross, museum president. 

With the grueling winter behind us, I, like most Minnesotans, cherish these hot days of summer. Families gather for picnics, hang out at their lake cabins, and squeeze in every bit of outside time they can. Minnesota may be known as the “The Land of 10,000 Lakes,” but on America’s Independence Day, it becomes “The Land of Endless Parades.” All over the state, people gather in their communities to celebrate the Fourth of July. Our small town of Afton, Minnesota, is no exception.

Afton, just fifteen miles east of downtown St. Paul, is a step back in time. Unlike our metropolitan suburbs, Afton has no shopping malls, fast food restaurants, or stoplights. On a normal day it has very little traffic. Well, a traffic jam might happen if more than three cars arrive at the post office at the same time.

Visitors can browse through unique shops filled with antiques, old-fashioned candy, and items local to the valley, or enjoy delicious ice cream cones at Selma’s Ice Cream Parlor, built in 1913. They can spend a lazy day by the St. Croix River, hike the trails at Afton State Park, or visit the Afton Historical Museum—a restored 1868 church—where dedicated volunteers weave rugs on vintage looms. Nestled on the river’s shore, Afton provides residents and visitors with a tranquil setting—except on the Fourth of July.

When my husband, John, and I left Minneapolis and moved to Afton in the early 1990s, a neighbor insisted we attend the Afton July Fourth Parade. The minute we showed an inkling of hesitation she insisted, “Come on. You’ll love it. It’s been a tradition in the valley since the 1970s!”

I wondered what could be so special about a parade in a community of a couple thousand people where the deer ate my begonias by night and raccoons raided the bird feeder daily. Well, my curiosity got the best of me and we gave in. On a July 4 morning filled with sunshine, we tied our tennis shoes and hiked a mile down our road. Before we even reached town, endless rows of cars lined the rural roads. Toddlers enjoyed the crowd’s excitement from the comfort of their strollers, while parents dressed in shorts and floppy hats carried coolers and lawn chairs toward Main Street. All the way down the parade route, miniature American flags crisscrossed above the street and flapped in the breeze.

4th_July_2Photos from the Afton Historical Museum; permission granted by Stan Ross, museum president. 

At exactly noon, the Washington County emergency vehicles sounded their sirens, flashed their lights, and rolled down the street. When the American flag passed by in all her glory, everyone stood up; men’s hats came off and hands rose to people’s hearts. Soon the Grand Marshal passed by in a Model T, followed by a local church group on a hay-wagon float drawn by a tractor. Seconds later, children of all ages on bikes and tricycles decorated with crepe paper streamers pedaled along the parade route. Spectators cheered and waved as the volunteer Schooner band filled the air with energetic tunes and more floats cruised by. Horseback riders smiled and waved as a “cleanup crew” followed close behind, but not too close. Even the local septic trucks got their moment of glory in the parade.

Twenty years have passed since that first July 4 Afton parade. I’ve attended many since. The parade still radiates its small-town energy and continues to draw a crowd. On the day, as many as 15,000 spectators from surrounding communities gather along the streets of our tiny town to enjoy our festive Fourth of July.

Afton’s small-town parade is not about flashy fireworks and fancy floats. It represents so much of what life in America’s about—family, community, and freedom. It is totally organized by volunteers, and anyone can participate. No registration fee is required; just show up at the assembly spot and get in line. People of all ages can enjoy the afternoon together. Spectators don’t even have to worry about missing something, because the parade goes just three-quarters of a mile, then turns around and comes back. How great is that?