Thousands come for Alachua's July 4th

A couple holds hands while watching fireworks during the Fourth of July celebration on Thursday in Alachua. The city calls the celebration "the largest small town fireworks display in America." The event includes local food booths, live music and kids activities.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, July 4, 2013 at 7:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 4, 2013 at 7:20 p.m.

ALACHUA — Each year in this small, North Florida town, a scene out of the last few moments of the movie “Field of Dreams” is recreated by the thousands of people who come from all over to enjoy the Fourth and to see the fireworks.

Car after car turns off Interstate 75 and U.S. 441 and meanders through the city's quiet downtown streets. They creep past the flag-painted lamp posts, past the old brick storefronts and gingerbread homes.

They stream slowly past the white-and-orange barricades strung together with orange hazard tape to an opening in the trees where police direct them up a dirt road to a large field on a hill overlooking the Hal Brady Recreation Complex.

And they get out by the carload, mothers and fathers with their children, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, black and white, Hispanic and Asian, to descend on the city of Alachua's annual July 4th celebration.

For 14 years, the city has played host to as many as 30,000 people — three times the city's population — who are drawn by the food vendors, the live music, the water slides, the pony rides, the rock-climbing wall and the bungee-jumping contraption.

But mostly they are drawn by the fireworks show — known as one of the grandest, most spectacular patriotic displays in North Central Florida.

“I'm hoping the fireworks live up to the hype,” said Martez Gordon, who came up from Gainesville with his fiancee, Stacee Brewer, and 6-year-old daughter, Tamar.

They waited in line for the bungee jump while Tamar darted off to check out something else, too impatient to stand in line herself.

“She's able to make the best of it,” Brewer said. “She loved the arts and crafts, she loves the bouncy house. The best part is everything is free.”

Everything, that is, except for what the more than three dozen vendors had to sell under their tents.

The festival started out small, its origins rooted in a millennial celebration in January 2000, said Adam Boukari, the assistant city manager for Alachua. Seven months later, they had their first July 4th celebration and it has grown steadily on the strength of its reputation.

“It really is a build it and they will come situation,” Boukari said, noting that planning begins five months in advance. “We make sure we have good traffic control, unique vendors and a variety of stuff to do. But the fireworks are the best around.”

The festival has become a magnet for families around the region, he said. “This is what they do.”

And the rain doesn't deter anyone. It's rained the day of the festival 10 out of 14 years, but always clears up in time for the fireworks, Boukari said.

“This is our first time here,” said Tammy Cooke, who came with her husband, Eric, their four children and his sister, Debora Antley, who was visiting from Raleigh, N.C.

Tammy said she heard about the event from her father and stepmother, who live in Alachua.

“The festival is supposed to be quite a turnout,” Tammy said. “Since Gainesville doesn't have anything to do on the Fourth, we came here.”

Logan Cooke, 7, was excited about the water slides — one twisty-turny gray water slide coiled like a rattler, the other a brilliant blue steep slope. “I want to go on the blue one,” he said, showing no fear.

Brenda and Steve Strickland sat on a picnic bench under a chair as their two boys stood in line for the gray water slide. This is their second time to the festival, and they planned to stay through the evening and watch the fireworks. “I think it's fantastic,” Brenda said.

The irresistible smell of wood smoke and grilled meat came from Joe Gainey, a Gainesville caterer, who was cooking up turkey legs and grilling corn wrapped in foil. This is his first year at the festival and he hopes to return if things go well.

He brought six cases of turkey legs and two bushels of corn (about 80 pieces), and hoped to sell them all.

“If it goes good in the rain, it'll go in the sun,” he said optimistically.

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