A Trip Down Memory Lane: The Country’s Oldest Consecutive Fourth of July Celebration

By Tiffany Cooke

On July 4, 1776 the United Stated declared its freedom. On the coast, joyful songs and celebrations rang out. This historical day marked the start of a new holiday. Two years later, the first Independence Day address took place in Marietta, Ohio. Kentucky joined the patriotic pride in 1794.

But what about Indiana?

Seemingly every small town across America has a commemoration on July 4, but Washington County is home to the oldest consecutive Fourth of July celebration in the country, rooting back to 1830.

Though other towns and cities observed the holiday prior to 1830, Pekin, Indiana claims the title of hosting the oldest consecutive Independence Day festival, meaning that Pekin has celebrated the holiday every year since its commencement 189 years ago.

According to the 2017 Census, there are just 1,381 residents in the town, yet an estimated 15,000 people attend the annual celebration. The Fourth festivities of Pekin have been covered by reputable magazines and newspapers across the country.

The historical and popular celebration began with just a few families. These families gathered in Pekin for 54th Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It took off from there. By 1854, the festivities included an Independence Day parade that began at the local train station and ended at a family farm.  When visitors arrived from the station, townsfolk meet them and escorted them on the parade path.

In 1885, a fairground ran by the Washington and Clark County Park Association, became the home of the event. The fairgrounds were bought by the Pekin Community Betterment Organization and the property was renamed the Pekin Community Park, where the celebratory activities still take place today.  

Pekin’s event is complete with fireworks, a parade, carnival, a variety of live entertainment, a prince and princess contest, queen contest, food vendors, a flea market, and a collection of carnival rides, and of course, American flags and patriotic decor.

If the celebration alone isn’t historic enough for its title as the oldest consecutive, attendees made history again in 2011 and again in 2014. Steve Tankersley lead 1,352 people to set a world record, verified by Guinness officials, as the most people “playing spoons” at the same time. Tankersley taught the willing attendees how two spoons can be hit together on one’s lap to play music. Then, the group gathered together in the Pekin Park shelter house and began to play.

The record was broken by another group later but reclaimed by Pekin at the Fourth Celebration again in 2014, when 2,439 played together.

This year is Pekin’s 189th Independence Day Celebration. Festivities span for two days on July 3 and 4.

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It’s about more than just the history, though. For those who live in the community, the celebration homes many of their fondest memories. Some of those community members have shared their favorite Fourth of July Celebration experiences below.

My favorite Fourth memory at Pekin is…

When I was around 8 years old, my parents took us to see the fireworks and we had to park on the side of the road and walk to see them at the park. What I remember is, as we were in the car waiting to be let out onto the road someone yelled, “Hey it’s Elvis!” My mom loved Elvis so much she had a sticker on the front bumper in silver and gold metallic that said “Elvis.” Dad was driving and wasn’t happy about it.

Tracey Mckillip

Going to watch the Pekin fireworks and getting glow sticks. Then, I would come home and stick them in the freezer to make them last longer and play with them every night until they were useless. The next day, we would set up lawn chairs in a family friends’ yard and I’d sit right next to the road with a plastic sack and collect all the candy.

Melody Mount

I had lived in Salem for over 9 years and never been to the Fourth, which in hindsight is weird as our mother took us to every carnival and parade she ran across. So, I was 16 before I went to my first Fourth with my boyfriend at the time. Loved the parade, the general happy atmosphere, and of course the fireworks!

Karen Houston

Mike Ooley jumping out of the car and stopping traffic long enough for us to get out and then he jumped back in… Not to mention the times we got stuck in the mud in the field and had to be pushed out!

Susie Cooke
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