Gordon Wheeler, 87, was one of the original volunteers who started Brattleboro’s Fourth of July celebration in 1973. Wheeler keeps a scrapbook with
Gordon Wheeler, 87, was one of the original volunteers who started Brattleboro's Fourth of July celebration in 1973. Wheeler keeps a scrapbook with photos from the first celebrations. He worked for the committee for eight years, doing everything from building floats, to raising money to umpiring softball games. (©Kayla Rice)
Saturday June 29, 2013

July 4th parade celebrates 40 years

BRATTLEBORO -- The first time Gordon Wheeler heard there was a movement afoot to organize a Fourth of July celebration in Brattleboro, he wanted to be a part of it.

It was back in March of 1973 when then Chamber of Commerce President J. Wayne Corbeil put a call out for volunteers to help raise money and organize a parade, day of activities at the park and fireworks display for the town.

"I thought it was a great idea," Wheeler recalled one morning recently while looking through a scrapbook he has filled with Fourth of July memories. "It's what the town needed."

This year's Fourth of July celebration in Brattleboro is being organized with a nod toward those early volunteers who helped start the tradition that has endured for four decades.

The grand marshal this year is Kelli Corbeil, daughter-in-law of lead founder J. Wayne Corbeil.

The Bill Powers Memorial Firecracker four-mile run starts at 9:30 a.m. at Living Memorial Park with runners coming down through town, up the parade route and ending at the Common. The parade begins at 10 a.m., with floats, bands, and marchers heading up Main Street toward the Common.

A full day of activities and concerts kick off at 1:30 p.m. at Living Memorial Park, with the fireworks scheduled to begin at 9:30 p.m.

Wheeler said that from the very first year the Fourth of July celebration in Brattleboro was a townwide celebration of the country's founding, but also, he said, of Brattleboro's volunteer spirit.


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About a dozen people showed up to that first meeting, Wheeler said.

Chairmen and women were named to head committees, and Wheeler says they quickly began sketching out the day's activities.

Bands were secured, activities were scheduled and dignitaries, who included Sen. George Aiken, were contacted to take part in Brattleboro's Fourth of July celebration.

Some things have changed since then, others have not, but one constant of the past 40 years has been the need to raise the money for the celebration.

Throughout the scrapbook Wheeler has kept are photos and letters showing the community work that has gone into making sure there was a parade, activities and fireworks.

That first year organizers set a goal of $3,000 to be raised, and newspaper stories from the time tell of a WTSA radiothon raising $1,000, the Lions and Kiwanis each donating $200, and Wheeler standing out on Main Street, drumming up support and looking for donations.

"It seemed like everyone in town was helping us," he said. "People were motivated to make this happen. Everyone had a part to play."

The first year was a success, and the next year the parade celebrated the 250th anniversary of the settling of Fort Dummer.

The parade was held again in 1975 and in 1976, the country's bicentennial, a huge celebration was planned and from then on the tradition was deeply entrenched in Brattleboro's annual event calendar.

For more than 30 years the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce helped organize the Fourth of July activities, working with the Brattleboro Recreation and Parks Department.

After the 2009 parade the chamber announced that it would no longer be able to help plan the event and soon after that a volunteer group, Brattleboro Goes Fourth, was formed to make sure the town continued to have a full day of activities.

Kevin O'Connor, a parade organizer, said a lot has changed from those early years.

People are busier and it can be a challenge to get volunteers.

The budget has increased, rising to about $13,500, and the introduction of liability insurance has made it a little tougher to schedule some events.

But O'Connor says the community spirit that started the very first parade in 1973 is still alive in Brattleboro.

"There are a lot of people, all over town, who make this happen," O'Connor said. "The world has changed a lot since 1973, and we want to honor that tradition while recognizing that Brattleboro is a different place."

Wheeler was grand marshal in 2010, the first year the local volunteer group took over organization duties form the chamber, and O'Connor said Wheeler has been invited again to march in the 40th anniversary celebration this year.

This year's grand marshal, Kelli Corbeil, met her future father-in-law in 1991, and he died a few years later.

She is going to march with her two children, the grandchildren of Brattleboro's Fourth of July parade founder J. Wayne Corbeil.

He was a humble man, Corbeil remembers, and it was not until his funeral where she realized just how much he had done around Brattleboro, including starting the parade and activities.

Through the years, as a member of WTSA Radio, Corbeil has marched in the parade and she said it is a special honor to be able to lead it this year, representing her family and the community spirit that has kept the tradition alive for 40 years.

"It's tremendous honor to carry a tradition like this forward, for my family and for this town which he loved," she said. "He started this because he was patriotic. He loved this country and he loved this town, and that is a great thing to celebrate."

For up to date information on the Fourth of July parade and activities go to www.brattleborogoesfourth.com

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.