The article was about the Seagrove Beach Fourth of July parade and how “Seaside,” the “planned community” next door, had taken it over.
Back in the 1960s or maybe the 1970s, folks at Seagrove Beach on the Florida panhandle began gathering along the shore on the morning of the Fourth of July — before it got too hot. Then, in flag-festooned beach buggies, they drove along the sand from one end of Seagrove to the other and back — a two-mile loop.
That done, participants and spectators retired to various houses where they drank mimosas and Bloody Marys and ate barbeque.
When the road through Seagrove was paved, the parade was moved there. Mary Frances — a woman in her 60s who could still get into her majorette boots (though not her uniform) — twirled her baton and led the marchers.
It was unorganized, unregulated and unpretentious. Just grab something red, white and blue and join in.
In time, the paved road got a name, “Scenic 30-A,” and traffic began to pick up. As it did, the Seagrove parade began to lose participants — no one wanted to get hit by a car on a Fourth of July morning.
Seaside was the reason for the traffic. More than a “planned community,” its founder, Robert Davis, had set out to create a “real town” with the sort of residents and amenities found in communities that were older and long established. What he created in the process was a tourist attraction that brought in people by the score, people who shopped at Seaside shops, ate at Seaside eateries and took part in Seaside events, like a Fourth of July parade.
Seaside’s parade participation was not entirely about getting consuming consumers out and buying on a holiday morning. Undergirding Davis’ design was the belief that “real towns” had aspects, institutions and activities that bonded residents (in this case, visitors and potential buyers) to the community — parks, a school, a church, concerts, plays and ceremonies like a Fourth of July parade. It was what a “real town” did.
So Seaside did it.
And since Seagrove’s own piece of 30-A was too short for a real parade, it joined neighboring Seaside.
As the 1980s passed away and the 1990s arrived, Seaside began to bring order and organization to the event, so much order and organization that by July 4, 1994, I could hardly believe what had taken place.
The Sheriff’s Department sent officers to close the road and direct traffic and the fire department offered an engine to lead the way and another to bring up the rear. There were bands and a color guard. Businesses, especially those in Seaside, entered floats, and awards were handed out for the most “creative.” Local churches put cute kids with Vacation Bible School T-shirts on flat-beds, politicians rode in closed cars in case someone wanted to dash out from the crowd and ask why the storm drains were clogged or why taxes kept going up, and paraders threw candy and trinkets and beads (but no one showed their naughty bits, for this was a family affair).
However, the old, laid-back, improvisational was not easily elbowed out by the upscale and organized.
One year, some friends and I entered my orange VW Thing, covered with signs proclaiming us “Seagrove Riff-Raft and proud of it.” Another year, the bikinied girls from Puckett, Miss., rode in an open jeep with a sign that read, “Came down on vacation, went home on probation.” “Riff-Raft” got an honorable mention when the prizes were handed out. The Puckett girls got admiring glances.
What Seaside was doing to the Fourth of July parade was a small taste of what was happening all along the Gulf Coast. From the condos on Thomas Drive to the condos of Gulf Shores and in gated communities and mini-mansions at points in between, a new Gulf Coast was being created by folks who wanted their time at the beach neatly choreographed to bleed out any suggestion of spontaneity.
With Seaside in the parade, spontaneity seemed lost in the shuffle.
Then, a few years later, there appeared in the parade a float filled with men wearing grass skirts with coconut bras and announcing themselves as the “Margarita MeMaws.” With them the next year were the twirling “girls” from Butler, Ala., high school friends reuniting at the beach and strutting their middle-aged stuff.
And I realized that despite the organization and commercialization, Seaside had not “put an end to carefree way of life.” The expanded parade just gave folks another opportunity to be carefree at the coast.
For that is what folks come to the coast to be.
Happy Fourth of July.
H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.