Fashion & Beauty

July 4 in Afton, Minnesota: Heartfelt in the Heartland

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?





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  • Diane Dettmann July 8, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    Thank you, Beth for the wonderful response to my Afton Parade essay! I’ve attended the parade off and on since the mid 1990s. I walked to town this year and enjoyed watching the parade roll along Main Street. It’s a treat to see all the families enjoying the day together. Makes me appreciate our small town of Afton even more!

  • Beth Paterson July 7, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    Diane, I love how you portray the Afton 4th of July parade. I attended my 1st one in 1984, when it was just the kids and adults on bikes or walking or on horseback all decorated in red, white and blue showing their patriotism. At that time we knew everyone in the parade and along the parade route, it was the best kept secret. I haven’t missed one in 30 years. It has changed and grown through the years but as you write, still has the small town feel and is what America is all about. Thanks for writing and sharing.

  • Diane Dettmann July 2, 2014 at 11:38 am

    @Toni Glad you enjoyed a glimpse of small town Minnesota. So glad communities still celebrate their “roots’. Nice to know these traditions are carried on even in large cities. I bet marching in the parade was quite the experience!

  • Toni Myers July 2, 2014 at 11:30 am

    I love that Afton is both a step back in time AND close to a large metropolis. And amazing that Afton has hung on to its way of life given the proximity. Thanks for this pleasure.
    I live inside a big city, but my neighborhood (Ballard) flaunts its heritage on Syttende Mai, with a festival and large old fashioned parade celebrating Norwegian Constitution Day every May 17. I’ve marched in it and it feels very small town and wonderful.

  • Diane Dettmann July 2, 2014 at 10:47 am

    Dr. Pat, your kind words lit fireworks in my heart! Thank you and WVFC for inviting me to be a part of your wonderful organization. Afton is a wonderful place to live and hope it maintains its simple life for years to come. Wishing everyone a safe and enjoyable July 4th!

  • Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen July 2, 2014 at 9:59 am

    Thank you for this lovely story that connects so many of us to the July 4th parades of the small towns of our past. It is wonderful to read about the simplicity and values of Avon that have survived the hectic life of the 21st century. We love your voice, Diane.