Lifestyle · Travel

July 4 in Marblehead, Massachusetts: A Little Town with Big History

492px-Spirit_of_'76The original of Archibald Willard’s painting Spirit of ’76 hangs in the Marblehead Town Hall.

I’m a native New Yorker, born and bred in the so-called Big Apple. It’s an appropriate nickname. In my hometown, bigger is better. People go big or go home.

Imagine the culture shock when I moved some 20 years ago to a small seaside village 17 miles up the coast from Boston.

Marblehead has a storied history, and its evidence is everywhere. A quick stroll through the crooked streets of “old town” and you’ll pass more pre-revolutionary homes than you’ll find anywhere else in the country. (Our house, built in the early 1800s, is a neighborhood newbie.) There’s a colonial fort, pirate alleys, a powder house, burial grounds, and the nation’s oldest Episcopal Church, built in 1714, nearly 10 years before Revere’s revered Old North in Boston. When General Washington visited Marblehead, he noted that the town had “the look of antiquity.”

It may seem sleepy (and, indeed, as a New Yorker, I had to get used to how early everything closes), but Marblehead also has a distinct heritage as a party place. In fact, local lore has it that the town’s first European settler, a man named Doliber, rowed across from neighboring Salem because he was fed up with strict Puritan prohibition. He set up temporary quarters (appropriately enough) in a hogshead, a giant barrel used for English ale. As a modern-day sailing center (and self-proclaimed “yachting capital of the world”), the town still boasts many pubs, beloved and notorious for their generous pours.

Marblehead’s contribution to our winning the American Revolution was significant. In 1775, the town formed the 14th Continental Regiment, under Colonel Glover. Unlike many other patriot militias, composed of armed settlers and farmers, Marblehead’s regiment was made up of seamen. They were used to discipline and following orders, and it was Marblehead men who rowed Washington across the Delaware to the Battle of Trenton. Today, a reproduction of Emanuel Leutze’s painting hangs in our town hall, along with the original and massive Spirit of 76 by Archibald M. Willard.

 DP215410Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze.Those are Marblehead men doing the rowing. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

With so much history all around, it’s no surprise that Marblehead takes the Fourth of July very seriously. It begins, each year, with the annual Horribles Parade, sponsored for generations by the Gerry No. 5 Veteran Firefighters Association. I was unfamiliar with this custom, but it traces back to several different New England towns since the mid-1800s. Originally called “Ancient and Horrible” parades, they were named after the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company and poked fun at 19th-century public figures. Today, Marblehead is one of a handful of communities that continue the tradition. Local children march in a vast variety of costumes. Awards are given in many categories, such as local interest, current events, and most patriotic (one year, my daughter and two friends won for their “Betsy Ross and the Supremes”). Every child gets an ice cream novelty and a silver dollar.

The Fourth of July also coincides with the Marblehead Festival of Arts. The town’s various public buildings house exhibits of paintings, drawings, sculpture, photography, mixed media, and more. There’s a hands-on children’s festival, writing workshops, street performers, and free concerts in the park overlooking Marblehead harbor. Although many locals head to the beach, to one of the local yacht clubs or (if they’re fortunate enough to have a boat) out on the water, the Arts Festival is a great alternative to while away the hours prior to the holiday’s main event.

I’ve already mentioned that I grew up in New York. As a young adult, I also lived in Boston. Needless to say, both of these cities deliver big-time where fireworks are concerned. I’m happy to report that Marblehead does too.

It begins just as dusk falls. Flares line the perimeter of Marblehead harbor, and volunteers light them in unison. This “Harbor Illumination” is a beautiful effect, whether it’s viewed from out on the water or from one of the many parks, beaches, and docks. And it also serves as a sort of hushed communal overture. Adults grow quiet while little kids, who’ve been waiting impatiently for fireworks all day, can barely sit still.

Fireworks finale in Marblehead, July 4, 2011

And at last, as the flares die down, the dazzling display begins. Marblehead’s “Fireworks Forever” committee (borrowing the name from the town’s official song, “Marblehead Forever”) seems to raise the ante every year in terms of length and number and sheer spectacle. An appreciative buzz, clapping, and cheering reward their efforts. There’s also some friendly competition from neighboring towns, whose own fireworks can be seen up and down the coast. All the pyrotechnics are reflected in the water, creating a gorgeous symmetry. And my own favorite part of this annual ritual is the foghorn blast the boat owners sound every time a display meets their approval.

Marbleheaders are a proud lot. They love their history and their traditions, and, as you can imagine, they love their Fourths of July. But in this particular case they aren’t alone. Coastal Living magazine included Marblehead in its “Top 10 Places to Celebrate the Fourth.”

It ranks pretty high on my list, too. Marblehead is a quaint little town that puts on a very big Independence Day party.


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  • sharon thibodeau July 4, 2015 at 4:21 pm

    Lots of history in M’head. for sure and a wonderful 4th of July with the Festival activities. But to call it a small town or sleepy village misses the mark by several thousand people on a crowded peninsula. It’s becoming more a part of the eastern Mass. sprawl. I guess everything is relative, however; we first came to town in 1970 from small town Maine – and small towns/villages can still be found up there as in all of northern NE.

  • Rob Whitehead July 4, 2015 at 10:59 am

    I was privileged to spend 6 months living in Marblehead as a child in 1966, from June to December living with my aunt and uncle and my cousins on Pond Street. I helped my cousins with their paper route, went to school, and participated in numerous local events including the Independence day celebrations. The experience changed me forever, and I like to think it made me a better person, although it took a while to recover my Louisville accent when I finally returned home to my family in Kentucky. Thank you for sharing your experience and for reminding me of a part of my childhood that I have always treasured.

  • Ellen Kenney July 4, 2015 at 9:04 am

    Thank you for noting the contribution of my ancestor, John Glover, and his Marblehead Brigade. They rowed Washington across the Delaware to participate in the Battle of Trenton.

  • Pam Peterson July 4, 2015 at 9:03 am

    Great job, Aleaxandra! Come visit us at the Marblehead Museum and lets see if we can combine marketing talents and interests?
    Love your enthusiasm and appreciation of all Marblehead has to offer.
    Pam Peterson
    Marblehead Museum

  • Suzanne Fluhr July 3, 2014 at 9:59 pm

    Uh oh. It looks like Hurricane Arthur is fixing to rain on Marblehead’s parade—-well, maybe not the parade, but the fireworks.

  • Diane Dettmann July 3, 2014 at 10:49 am

    Sounds like a very exciting July 4th celebration in a town filled with lots of history! Glad to see communities large and small celebrating America. Happy July 4th to everyone in Marblehead, enjoy those beautiful fireworks!