Three distinct generations of have left their mark on Telluride's July 4th celebration over the past fifty years: the small town get-togethers of the 1940s and 50s; the event's eventual collapse in the late 70s and rebirth in 1987; and finally the explosively popular event it is today. To commemorate this year's celebration, longtime locals join with a new generation of organizers in reflecting on the past five decades in Telluride's Fourth of July history.
A Telluride "Isolation Celebration" - Fourth of July Celebrations of the 40s and 50s
When 68-year-old Jack Pera was a youngster growing up in Telluride, the best way into town was on a dirt road from Placerville.
"There weren't too many people coming in from the outside," Pera recalls of the 1940s and early 50s, throughout which his family called the Telluride region home. With few newcomers braving the winding dirt road into town, Pera remembers Independence Day celebrations as a kind of "Telluride Isolation Celebration," when longtime locals got together and past Telluride residents returned to ruminate on the year that was.
"The whole celebration was probably 95 percent Telluride people, so it was like the unofficial designated day for the old-timers to wander up and down the streets and talk to their old friends - 'Oh there's old so-and-so, haven't seen him in years...And there's Mrs. so-and-so, I should go talk to her,'" says Pera.
Although the "old-timers" chose the Fourth of July as the year's unofficial community-wide social event, as a kid, Pera and other Telluride youngsters looked forward to the Fourth as the one day each year when everyone in the community came out to play. Following the parade, which Pera remembers as quite short but with many imaginative and extravagantly decorated floats, members of the Telluride Fire Department would set up booths and activities around town. There were mucking contests, where some of the community's burliest miners came out with shovels blazing to see who could move a truckload-full of crushed rock from one truck to another. There were other mining events, like the drilling contest, and also community-wide games, including the men's baseball game. One year, there was even a full-fledged rodeo in Town Park, likely the first and only rodeo to ever be held in the Telluride valley.
Ladies-only events featured the nail driving contest. Pera remembers that year after year, his neighbor from up the street, Lorie Richard, would always take home the ribbon for driving the fastest nail.
"Even when people from out of town started coming in and hammering against her, no one could beat her," he recalls. "She was probably the winner of that contest for twenty years in a row."
Main street and Town Park were always abuzz with games for kids, with nickel throws and water fights, as well as the occasional greased pig catching contest. The greased pole climbing contest was much anticipated, when a $20 bill was hung at the top of a greased metal pole and competitors tried to climb to the top to claim the money.
"We would all line up for our chance to shimmy up that pole, but it was impossible," remembers Pera. "Eventually they'd let a few kids climb up on each other's backs and get the bill."
Perhaps the most thrilling Fourth of July in Pera's recollection was the first year the jets flew over town. As he remembers, just about everyone in town was sitting in the bleachers in the vacant lot that is now the Eagle's restaurant building, watching the miners' drilling contest. The jet was supposed fly over town that morning to start the parade, much as they do today, but didn't appear, so everyone assumed it wasn't coming at all. It was hot and everyone was tired from the long afternoon of festivities, but during a break in the drilling racket the entire crowd charged to their feet when, seemingly out of nowhere, the jet came screaming overhead.
"No one heard or saw it coming," says Pera. "It just slipped down over the mountains from the east and whooshed by us all so fast - talk about a crowd going from zero to wild in a tenth of second! Everyone in the crowd jumped up, but it was already gone."
After Pera's 1955 graduation from Telluride High School, the town's population began its slow decline, as local mining operations began tapering off. With the dwindling population also came a decline in annual Fourth of July Celebration events. In 1976 and 1977, there were no community Fourth of July celebrations at all. Smaller, family-type celebrations slowly started back up in 1978, but it wasn't until nearly a decade had passed that the annual parade returned to main street.
These days, Pera regularly watches the Fourth of July Parade with children and grandchildren, though he admits that the modern event has a much different flavor than that of the old days.
"It isn't the unofficial community get-together it used to be," he says, and he usually passes on staying up for the fireworks.
"After 55 years of watching the fireworks show, I'll take a good lightning show instead."
Resurrection of a Telluride Tradition: The Parade Returns in 1987
By the 1980s, the community's annual Fourth of July parade was a thing of the past. Although the town had regularly celebrated Independence Day with the firemen's barbecue, an evening fireworks display and a few popular annual events, like the main street tug-o-war, there had been no parade to speak of for many years. That all changed when Shari Flatt and Joyce Allred moved to town with their husbands, Dave Flatt and Ron Allred (who were pursuing a new business venture with the Telluride Ski and Golf Company).
As Flatt remembers, Allred called her up shortly after she moved to town in May of 1987.
"She asked me, 'Are you bored yet?' And I was, so she suggested we do a Fourth of July Parade."
And with that one phone call, Flatt and Allred ignited an annual Telluride tradition. For nearly a decade, the event planning and organizing consumed a significant portion of both women's summer schedules.
That first year, Allred and Flatt solicited businesses up and down main street for prizes, with the idea that more people would participate if there was money at stake.
"That year there were more people in the parade than people watching the parade," Flatt says.
Flatt's parents drove up from Grand Junction to man the registration table; both women gave their husbands and friends a 5:45 a.m. wake-up call to help set up barricades on main street; and with the help from a few judges, an emcee and a handful of volunteers, the first Telluride Fourth of July parade in years was off to a successful start.
One of the most memorable parades Flatt remembers from her years of as co-chair of the event (this year will be the first year since they re-started the event that Flatt and Allred won't be playing a leading role in organizing the parade) was when a local couple were married on the courthouse steps in front of the judges and a throng of spectators in the middle of the parade.
"Joyce came bustling up from the start of the parade to where I was in front of the judges, wanting to know what was going on because the parade had completely frozen," remembers Flatt. "She soon figured out what was causing the hold up - there was a wedding in the parade!"
Managed by Flatt and Allred, and with much community support, the annual Telluride Fourth of July parade soon exploded into one of the community's most popular events. It was about six years ago that Flatt truly realized how big the event had become when an officer from the Telluride Marshal's Department approached her and Allred just before the parade was to begin.
"He told us we had a real problem on our hands - this parade had created gridlock! People were just circling around the blocks in town, because there was no place to park," says Flatt. "He told us that there were more cars in town for the parade than they even let in for the Bluegrass Festival."
Following that year's parking dilemma, event organizers had to begin creating parking options for parade watchers, first shuttling them in from out of town on buses and then urging out-of-towners to park in the Mountain Village and ride the gondola into Telluride. To this day, ample parking is an issue during the Fourth of July, and organizers urge people to find alternative transportation into town or to come early and park outside of town.
Hordes of local and visiting spectators alike have discovered a unique small town event in Telluride's Fourth of July Celebration. Over the years, the parade has received national media attention from CNN, the BBC and more, as well as continually drawing more and more people.
"It's one of those things that just keeps getting better and better," Flatt says. "As we like to say, it's a Norman Rockwell kind of day in Telluride every Fourth of July."
2005 and Beyond: New Leadership, Same Great Celebration
Telluride Fourth of July parade committee members Chris Harrison, Jo Passarelli, Richard Wodehouse, and others, have been neck-deep in July 4th preparations since well before most locals were even thinking about summer. The parade committee, now more than seven members strong, has been holding regular meetings since January to prepare for the event.
Co-committee chair Harrison says that a few beneficial changes have recently taken shape, although the overall look and feel of the event will be very much the same as in the past. Perhaps most importantly is the event's move to autonomy, from operating under the umbrella of the Telluride Fire Department to becoming its own non-profit organization.
"It has made organizing the event so much easier, now that we have our own money, our own storage locker, all those things that we always used to have to share," says Harrison, explaining that with financial support from the Town of Telluride, the Mountain Village Home Owners Association and First National Bank, the event has been able to purchase insurance, buy new banners, rent a storage space, and more - all developments that help to make the parade planning that much simpler and more organized.
"The object of the parade is to make it fun for everyone, and the simpler and more organized it is, the more fun it is for everyone involved," Harrison says.
Fellow committee member Passarelli adds that spectators will notice a few new faces at the parade this year. The KOTO Boom Box band will be making its debut in the parade, while last year's Best Band winner "New Altitude" will be performing outside the Telluride Museum beginning at 9 a.m. To help encourage more bands to enter the parade, the committee has also set aside funds to rent flat-bed trucks and generators for local bands to use.
Passarelli, who moved to town six years ago and became interested in helping organize the parade after her daughter won Best Decorated Baby in 2001, says that the Fourth of July Parade is a tradition of which Telluride should be proud.
"Really, it's my favorite festival although it's not really a festival," Passarelli says. "It's the thing I look forward to more than anything else. I am from Jamaica originally, but I think I am like most people in that I love the Fourth of July. The parade and the whole Fourth of July celebration here in Telluride is just so much fun and such a big deal, it doesn't seem to make a difference where you're from. You can't help but love it."