In America, the land of strongly held opinions, a whiff of controversy about the proper way to celebrate Independence Day seems positively patriotic.

So it was in Bel Air. Complaints of animal cruelty didn't stop the frog-hopping contest or turtle race at Shamrock Park on Friday morning, though organizers said that the number of contestants — 144 frogs and 105 turtles — was down from last year.

A (comparatively) speedy turtle named Squirt won a trophy on behalf of 14-year-old Jessica Douglass of Whiteford, who has been coming to the derby for as long as she can remember.

Jessica was aware of concerns raised last year by national and local wildlife groups that object to animals being removed from their natural habitats. She said her family is careful to feed its turtles a diet of species-appropriate plants and water.

Her father, Michael Douglass, added that after the race, the family follows the advice of the Independence Day Committee and returns the turtles to the spot where they were found and sets them free.

"As long as the turtles are properly taken care of, I don't see where it would hurt anything," Michael Douglass said.

On Friday, it was difficult not to come across some sort of patriotic celebration anywhere in Central Maryland. There were marching bands and grown adults wearing dog costumes and kids riding mules and stilt-walkers and politicians asking for votes (this is an election year, after all) and fire engines on parade, sirens blaring. There were Boy Scouts in uniforms a little bit too big, and elderly war veterans in uniforms a little bit too tight.

At Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the crowd, which numbered about 25,000 at 7 p.m., was expected to swell to nearly 200,000 at fireworks time, according to Fire Marshal Brian Edwards.

Hours before the main attraction, a crowd gathered outside the Harborplace amphitheater as a U.S. Naval Academy band played classic favorites. A few dozen onlookers danced along to the beat, including Marshall Hall Jr., 57, of Annapolis — aka the Cat in the Hat, in honor of his red-white-and-blue felt chapeau.

"I've been coming here for five or six years," Hall said. "The water draws me, and there's so much to do, you don't get bored."

Eleven-year-old Stormy Howard of Baltimore likes to imagine the way that people lived before she was born. So she was eager to explore the Constellation, an 1854 sloop of war and the only Civil War-era ship still afloat.

Catonsville's parade, now in its 68th year, is so famous that it attracts visitors from out of state.

Christopher Groninger, 48, traveled from his Pennsylvania home to spend the holiday with daughter Kayleigh, 26, who moved to Catonsville in 2010.

Kayleigh Groninger acknowledged that her hometown of Lewisburg, Pa., also has a big celebration, but said, "It pales in comparison to this one."

In Howard County's River Hill community, the Precision Lawn Chair Marching Dads, as always, set a fashion statement. They were nattily attired in white undershirts, flag shorts, black knee socks and shades. They performed their signature move before a cheering — or was it jeering? — crowd, snapping their lawn chairs open with panache and twirling them above their heads.

In Roland Park, a community that prides itself on its good manners, everyone was so polite and deferential and unwilling to push themselves into the spotlight that parade organizers had trouble scratching up a grand marshal until minutes before festivities began.

Shortly before the parade was to start, Chris McSherry, president of the Roland Park Civic League, could be spotted walking around asking all and sundry if they wanted to serve in the honored spot.

"If you can't find anyone else," demurred City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, smartly dressed in — what else? — red, white and blue, as was Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Finally, McSherry prevailed upon City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young to don a traditional tall hat and to affix a white beard to his face.

"He's graciously agreed to wear the silly hat," McSherry said, "so he's our grand marshal this year."

How's that for leadership?

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Lauren Loricchio, Keith Meisel, Larry Perl and Bryna Zumer contributed to this article.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com