(Photo: Denise Orford)
SAVANNAH, Tenn. – Large-scale freedom festivals across the nation attract attendees with prolific firework displays and choirs singing patriotic songs, such as Lee Greenwood’s hit song, “God Bless the USA.” Yet nothing compares to the reverie of one of the thousands of Fourth of July parades and celebrations held in small towns and communities across America.
With a little organization, small town USA comes alive on our nation’s birthday with eager neighborhood kids with bikes, red, white and blue crate paper, and a grandparent or two.
A quiet community nestled on the banks of the Tennessee River, Savannah, Tenn., is about ten miles north of the Mississippi-Alabama state line. The town was first settled in the early 1800s and has grown little over the past several decades, holding a steady population of just over 7,000 residents.
Joni & Ron Shanks organize the annual event along with Joni’s mother and the family patriarch, “Miss Dottie” Hutchinson. The Hutchinson family has a long history in leading the economic success of downtown Savannah since the 1940s when Joni’s grandfather operated a drug store.
“We started the parade about five years ago after I read an article in Southern Living about neighborhood parades and how they bring neighbors together,” said Joni Shank, a life-long Savannah resident, as well as a wife and mother of three young boys.
“Every year we would go to the lake and hang out with people we didn’t know. I just saw a need to involve our neighbors and get out of the house. Even in a small town, people tend to cluster in groups around age, church or work and not socialize as much as they used to. This little parade brings people of all generations out. What’s not to like about watching kids and dogs in a parade?” asked Shank.
An early start time of 9:30 a.m. allows everyone to avoid the 95 degree plus summer heat before heading to a neighborhood pool or to nearby Pickwick Lake.
The parade route is short, probably not even a half a mile from start to finish – yet its path covers much of America’s history.
Soon after the young nation was born, explorers ventured down the Tennessee River looking for shortcuts to the Gulf of Mexico. As larger cities like Memphis were being settled, smaller towns like Savannah began to spring up on the banks of rivers where fertile farmland and trading with native Indians helped establish trading routes. Today, barges traveling up and down the river provide jobs – directly and indirectly – for many of the area residents.
Turning the corner heading to the mid-way point of the parade, the children passed the historic Cherry Mansion, the home where then General Ulysses S. Grant made his headquarters during the Battle of Shiloh in the early years of the nation’s Civil War. Today tourists and visitors come from all 50 states to walk through the battlefields where over 23,000 men gave their lives fighting for their side’s cause.
Heading toward the end of the route a view of downtown Savannah showcased the challenges Main Street has seen in towns all over the country. Larger chain stores built warehouse-sized stores on the outskirts of town leaving many downtown merchants with fewer customers and declining revenues. Today, downtown is making a comeback as merchants and community leaders encourage storeowners to relocate within walking distance of the scenic courthouse and Town Square.
At the end of the parade, children and adults gather on Miss Dottie’s front porch for donuts, biscuits and sweet tea.
Small town USA is making a comeback in many ways, but none more important than bringing people together.
“I don’t think I’ll ever stop having this parade, even after my children are grown,” said Shank. “It’s a great way to celebrate our nation’s history and follow God’s commandment to love our neighbors. Plus, having great food doesn’t hurt either.”