Weeks before July 4, a number of Catonsville residents stake out a place along Frederick Road so they have a guaranteed spot for the annual parade. It happens every year, like clockwork.

It’s part of the kitsch that makes Catonsville such a great place to live, locals say. Families grew up doing it, for as far back as many can remember.

Advertisement

It’s a tradition in the 21228 ZIP code — a way of life. As natural in late June as the summer solstice.

Or is it?

If you ask Pete Fitzpatrick, a flight nurse who’s lived in Catonsville all of his 46 years, the tradition is under 20 years old. He claims folks didn’t begin setting out chairs early until 2002.

“There’s a sense sometimes in Catonsville in kind of protecting what we have, rather than inviting people in,” Fitzpatrick said.

Backing up Fitzpatrick’s claim are a smattering of news articles and photos from the past.

A photo gallery from The Baltimore Sun shows chairs in the days leading up to July 4 being planted as early as 2002.

And, notably, a 2001 feature story from The Washington Post references the “ritual” of placing chairs along Frederick Road to grab a spot for the parade — but only the night before, not weeks leading up to it.

Also on his side is the lack of evidence in the affirmative — that is, there are no photos, no articles and no real historic mentions of the “chair ritual” prior to the 2001 article that Baltimore Sun Media was able to uncover.

A Catonsville Times article from 2013 references chairs “popping up” since the 1960s, but with no specific date, and no specific mention of when chairs began to appear — whether it was days, hours or weeks before the Fourth.

Monty Phair, a librarian who oversees the local history room at the Catonsville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, said the Catonsville Fourth of July parade started in earnest in 1948, but he couldn’t say for certain when people started placing the chairs.

Phair himself moved to the area in 2003 and was first exposed to the enthusiasm surrounding Catonsville’s parade around 2001.

That enthusiasm, he said, really separates Catonsville from other celebrations.

“It shows how much this town sees itself as an example of small-town America rather than a suburb,” Phair said.

And, depending on whom one asks, the chairs could be even more than just a fun quirk. They could be a yearly demonstration of human social-psychological dynamics.

Advertisement

Shawn Bediako, associate professor of psychology and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said that, on the one hand, it’s about staking your claim as an individual. “But simultaneously, in a strange way, it’s an indicator of community because I’ve never seen people fight over those things,” he said. “That’s the amazing thing to me; I think it’s indicative of the human story, about how we have adapted into group living.”

Baltimore County fire officials said they’ve never heard any concerns voiced about the chairs being placed out before July 4.

And while county police officials referenced Baltimore County Code 18-3-109, which says a person may not place “any metal, wood, glass, nails, grass clippings, leaves, or other object or article” on or in “any road, street, sidewalk, lane, alley, bridge, or drain in the county,” a spokesman for the department said he was not aware of any complaints filed with police over the Catonsville chairs.

‘I knew what they were for’

Nobody in Catonsville can agree on when the chairs started going up around Independence Day. Most can agree, though, that the chairs seem to be cropping up earlier than they used to.

Jim Jones, 54, lives off Frederick Road near Bloomingdale Road. He said that growing up he remembers people placing chairs out “the night before or early morning hours,” and that folks setting up chairs earlier started probably in the 1990s.

Don Mohler, 69, former county executive and lifelong Catonsville resident, said his clearest memory is that in the past 10 or 15 years people started putting out chairs days or even weeks in advance.

And Jackie Scott, an English professor at the Community College of Baltimore County, Catonsville, campus, said she remembers people setting up chairs in the mid-’90s, “days before the parade.”

But Jo-Ellen O’Dell, a Catonsville resident since 2002, said the chairs are definitely cropping up earlier than they used to.

“When I first moved to Catonsville, and I first saw the chairs up, it was close enough to July 4 that I knew what they were for,” she said.

Map: July Fourth fireworks displays around the Baltimore area

View a map and list of Fourth of July fireworks displays in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties.

But now, she sympathizes with the Catonsville newbies asking in Facebook posts what the chairs are about and even who’s “allowed” to put them up — especially since chairs are out in June now.

Laryn Rollhauser, who grew up in Edmondson Heights, said regardless of when the chairs started going up early, they’re fun and a tradition that she loves. That doesn’t extend to a newer phenomenon, however, of people setting out ropes or tarps to mark their territory; she said that trend is “not as fun.”

Others agree.

“I understand like putting out chairs, which actually looks great. But when people start putting out caution tape and just whatever they can find in the garage … to me, that’s just not really thinking aesthetically about how you’re contributing to the community,” Scott said.

Tracy Soltesz, 40, a graduate of Catonsville High School and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has lived most of her life in Catonsville and now resides on Frederick Road with her husband and two children, loves the chairs and compares the practice to hanging up Christmas lights in December.

“I’ve come to view the placing of chairs as a civic duty that I agreed to when I purchased the house,” she said. The chairs in midsummer are part of the “Catonsville feel.”

During the parade, she and her family invite anyone walking by on the sidewalk to sit on one of the extra chairs they’ve set out. They tell people with children that they can sit in front of the chairs for a better view.

“The parade is just one giant block party with our 10,000 neighbors,” she said.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement