Fourth of July parades are so filled with tradition you might not notice changes from year to year. But to participants, each parade is special. They love the cheers from the crowds — and they're ready for the heat of the day.
"We've seen the Towson parade grow from small into mammoth," said John Ziemann, president of Baltimore's Marching Ravens. About 35 of the 150-member band will march on Friday, just as the band has for more than 20 years — since back when they were known as the Batlimore Colts Marching Band. "We used to wear full dress uniforms — jacket, long pants, hat — that we use now for games," Ziemann said. "We learned our lesson the hard way. People were dropping from the heat. So we have a summer uniform of purple polo shirt with the band logo, black shorts, white socks, white tennis shoes and a Ravens baseball cap. You have a lot less people dropping."
And that isn't all, he notes. "We have an equipment truck that follow us with water, Gatorade, our own paramedics. If someone goes down, we don't hold up the parade," he said. A 20-member euipment crew keeps the musicians marching.
The O'Connor School of Irish Dance is making its debut this year. Founded in 2012, the Towson school has more than 70 students from age 4 to adult.
The school's dancers have participated in St. Patrick's Day parades so they have some idea what to expect, according to founder and president Casey O'Connor.
"When people on the parade route see Irish dancing, they start dancing, too," O'Connor said. "We dance most of the parade route. It's a parade dance routine that keeps us moving forward instead of stepping in place like traditional Irish dance."
A Highlander Contract Company truck leads the way, playing Irish music. The high-stepping dancers follow, wearing class uniforms.
For the White Sabers Drum Corps, Baltimore is a regular Fourth of July destination — with four parades on their schedule. The New York state-based corps, with 65 members, marches in 8 to 10 parades each year, all of them in their home state except the four in Baltimore.
"The crowds are wonderful. They're huge. They're always cheering us on," said director Leslie Amico.
The corps, founded in 1928, also participates in field competitions in Pennsylvania.
"We come down by bus to Baltimore, and stay overnight. In contrast to marching bands, we are straight drum and bugles. It's very exciting when we go on the field or in a parade. It's a strong sound," Amico said.
After four years of marching in the area, the corps has learned about Baltimore summers.
"It's always hot in Baltimore," Amico said. "Our standard uniforms are black pants and blue-and-white jackets. In summer, for Baltimore, we wear shorts and T-shirts. Our uniforms are too heavy for that heat. And, we bring lots of water with us."
For the bikers of the Maiden Choice Motorcycle Club, kids are the reason to ride in the parade. Members of the club, founded in 2011, ride in formation, flying the club's colors of blue, white and purple.
"We do a lot of charity work with children," said Blaze (no last name), founder and president. "We like to do the parade for the kids. Their faces light up, they point, get excited."
Like the marching bands, the bikers expect to be prepared for the heat. "If it's a really hot day, the motorcycles will overheat. Last year, we had a couple of times they did that as we waited for the parade to move on," Blaze said, recalling their first appearance in the parade last year. "We drink lots of water, wear sunscreen."
A 1934 American LaFrance Fire Engine, owned by retired county fire chief Elwood Banister, has become a much-anticipated participant in the parade in the last five years. The engine started service in Towson in 1934 and then went to Exxes and Dundalk before retirement in the late 1940s. It was restored in 1982 when Baltimore County's fire department observed its 100th anniversary.
Then in 1994, Banister bought the engine at auction and now displays it at auto show and in his private fire museum in Phoenix. And for the past five years it's been part of the Towson parade.
"I enjoy the opportunity to share the engine with the public," Banister said. "[The engine is] from 1934 so you can't drive it too far. But this unit is the oldest piece of equipment that actually served in Baltimore County and it's still running."
Banister enjoys the ride. "I was in the department for 38 years so a lot of people know me. People line the street, they clap, cheer, holler our names," he said.