Parade and fireworks make for a star-spangled spectacular day by Wendy O. Dixon and Anne Hunter
Through the years, South Walton County’s collective course for commemorating the Fourth of July has grown to include fireworks, parades, cookouts, bonfires, parties and music. This year, there are plenty of opportunities to mark the occasion of America’s independence from England with Scenic Highway 30A’s arsenal of wow-worthy moments. But if you are pondering how to join in on the traditions of old, look no further than Seaside, where the annual Fourth of July Parade, pioneered by the founding families of Seagrove, culminates in Seaside Square, where the day’s festivities begin.
Lighting the sky from a barge in the Gulf of Mexico, Seaside will host its annual fireworks extravaganza Thursday, July 4 at 8:30 p.m., but not before starting the evening with a celebration of sound at the Seaside Amphitheater, with music beginning at 5:30 p.m., and headliner Sister Hazel stepping in to raise the roof at 7 p.m. For early risers, celebrating your sovereignty starts early by watching (or joining) the South Walton Fourth of July Parade. One of the most beloved local events of the year, the parade sets off on its route from Seagrove Plaza to downtown Seaside at 8 a.m.
The Fourth of July Parade predates Seaside, making its inaugural debut in 1976 (the year of the bicentennial) when a band of Seagrove locals charted a course from Hickory Street, south to Highway 30A, through the dunes and onto the beach for a day and night of revelry. Hickory Street sits three blocks east of Robert’s Way, the eastern entrance of Seaside. In the late 1960s, a Jeep trail had been cut through two empty lots.
A member of Payson Comer Howard’s family has lived continuously in Seagrove since 1960. “The origins of the tradition of the Fourth of July parade were cemented long before Seaside existed in Robert Davis’ mind,” explains this founding parade pioneer, who shares fond memories of the inaugural event, where several Seagrove families who owned summer homes and beach Jeeps would gather to celebrate the country’s birthday. “We would line up the Jeeps on Hickory Street in Seagrove, decorate them, and then dress up in costumes. We drove westward to the Jeep trail, which is about where the beginning edge of Seaside is today, then down to the beach over the dune — then up and down the beach until everyone got tired of driving around. We would end up near Montgomery Street at Andalusia where we all would gather for a game of family touch football, watermelon eating, cookouts and a day on the beach with families, friends and relatives.” A big bonfire and fireworks would follow at night, where children played among the American flags lined the beaches.
Marie Solomon, Seagrove resident and a parade co-founder says the Independence Day events were special for the locals. “Fourth of July was the highlight of the summer for us as all our best beach friends were in town,” she says. “It usually started with the parade lined up Hickory Street to the old beach trail and back to a spot on the beach in the middle of Seagrove. The parade was often followed by an epic football game. In the late ’70s it changed over to the Rags to Riches race.”
The original Seagrove families continue the tradition today with an annual block party. Howard recalls, “Back then, there were at least 25 families that included Spanns, Solomons and Comers. Everybody had two kids or more and we all played flag football. My good friends, Flip Spann and Robbins Carothers, dressed up as the members of a marching band from the Revolutionary War, carrying drums and flags. They looked like minstrels in their ripped-up jeans and white leggings wrapped around them like boots.” Howard recites the only two rules of the day, “When you arrive in Seagrove, you take your shoes off and you never put them back on.” With feet covered in stickers and tiny dents from the then rocky pavement of 30A, the crew of local kids always wore blue jeans and white T-shirts and stayed barefooted until they returned home.
By the early 1980s, the Fourth of July Parade had seen celebrants through half a decade of commemorative off-road Jeep jubilation before their four-wheeling roadsters were forced to navigate a new parade route on Highway 30A when vehicles were banned from the beach. Walton County stopped allowing Jeeps on the beach in about 1981, except for permitting them for Grayton Beach and designating Inlet Beach as a boat launch for four-wheel drive vehicles and trailers. “Back then, there was no need to close the roads because everyone who might have used the road was in the parade.” Howard recalls. “They definitely had no businesses or politicians in them. It was only local families having fun.”
Now, nearly 100 vehicles participate in the parade, including businesses, politicians, tourists and locals who roll west on 30A, wheeling their bicycles, scooters, vintage automobiles, and even an antique fire truck, while tossing candy, toys and good cheer to their fellow Americans.
Throughout the years, the parade expanded west on Highway 30A. “One part of the parade started in Grayton Beach and the other part would start in Seagrove and they would eventually converge in Seaside. And then it would be like the battle of parades. It was hysterical,” says Erica Pierce, general manager of Seaside Associated Stores and annual parade participants. “When they met in the middle they would just pass each other. There was no formality to it. I don’t even think the road was closed.”
“Then people on vacation eventually got into it,” says Pierce. “Now it’s the most eagerly anticipated event of the year.”
The Seaside Style began its own tradition of creating a new design for each year’s July Fourth T-shirt. Recent designs include a nod to the first shirt design, featuring the famous Seaside post office on it, and Seaside’s famous founding dog Bud depicted on a patriotic themed tee. The 2019 T-Shirt features the American flag with everyone’s favorite mode of transportation in Seaside — bicycles.
Whether you are a pioneering local, a seasoned vacationing veteran or stopping in Seaside for the first time, this patriotic day will likely be one you’ll never forget. Click to see the Seaside Events Calendar.