The Towson Fourth of July Parade is so old that nobody knows exactly how old it is.
The question led Betsy Lafferty, Jessica Paffenbarger and Carol Hunter on a mission: to collect the scattered history of the Towson tradition in one place, preserving it for future generations.
“We didn’t want it to just disappear into a black hole,” Paffenbarger, a West Towson resident, said of the old photos, news articles and programs that the three women collected. “That’s what bound us together, that we had that interest.”
The three women, all part of the Fourth of July Parade Committee, spent two years tracking down bits and pieces of the parade’s history.
They searched drawers in the Towson Chamber of Commerce. They perused the Towson Library and spun through microfilm at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in downtown Baltimore. And they leaned on the institutional knowledge of Hunter, of Lutherville, who has been on the parade committee since the 1980s.
The result: a large encyclopedia-sized binder, filled with old articles dating to the 1800s, and a separate photo album showcasing participants, viewers and volunteers of parades in years past.
“The thing that was a challenge was that the pieces were all over the place,” Lafferty, of Stoneleigh, said. Lafferty, whose husband is Maryland Del. Steve Lafferty, said she took an interest in the parade after marching in it with her husband.
In the binder, there are the photos of floats from the early 1900s, elaborately decorated in a fashion Paffenbarger said is much more rare today.
There are lists of contest winners from years past, photos of fire engines and military flyovers, and printouts of old articles. The parade paper trail stacks more than 2 inches high.
In the back of the binder are a handful of empty plastic sleeves, ready for a record of the 2019 parade.
This year will feature two grand marshals: the Maryland Horse Breeders Association and Radebaugh Florist and Greenhouses, both celebrating more than 90 years in Towson.
Lafferty said the Radebaugh family plans to decorate its float with red and white carnations in the shape of an American flag.
Other highlights this year will include a Maryland Air National Guard flyover and horse-mounted Buffalo soldiers, African Americans who fought in a segregated infantry division in World War II, said Nancy Hafford, director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce.
“It really is about our military,” Hafford said. “At the end of the day it’s not the hot dogs and hamburgers, and that’s all well and good. But it’s really about the people and the families that really gave a lot so we can have what we have.”
New this year will be vendors who ordinarily serve food at the farmer’s market on Thursdays in downtown Towson, including an ice cream truck and Mexican On The Run, Hafford said.
Many restaurants are also staffing up and plan to be open and running specials for people who want to stop by after the parade, Hafford said.
The Towson parade is even older than 90. But how much older? After years of research, Lafferty said they could not find a definitive answer.
“People have tried to pin it down and it’s extremely difficult,” Lafferty said. In old news articles, the women said they found at least four different estimates for a beginning date.
Their best guess: a start date sometime before the turn of the 20th century.
In the binder, the oldest articles date to 1912. But a review of online historical database ProQuest found the earliest reference to a Fourth of July parade in Towson to be in the Baltimore Sun on July 3, 1860, less than 10 years after Baltimore County separated from the city.
“The day will be celebrated at Towsontown by the Towson Guards, Capt. Chas. R. Chew, by a parade, picnic and oration in the grove adjoining Towsontown,” the article says.
However old the parade is, Lafferty said it has to be at least 120 years.
Paffenbarger said she wanted to participate in the project because she did not want all those years of history to get lost. “Once it’s gone, you can’t get it back,” she said.
Lafferty said the intent is for the binder to become part of the Towson branch library’s reference section. They also plan to look into digitizing it.
That long tradition of entertaining community members is what has kept Hunter coming back to volunteer decade after decade.
“The majority of the community really enjoys this parade,” Hunter said. “It’s really nice when you’re working the parade and you see that children, they get excited over the costume characters and things. I kept working on it because I wanted to make sure that I contributed and that the parade was successful every year.”
Lafferty said she volunteers on the parade committee, and has sought out the event’s history, because it is part of what makes Towson special.
“I think there’s a uniqueness about Towson … there’s a certain community identity that is a Towson stamp,” she said.
Fourth of July Parade 2019: If you go
'4 on the 4th' 4-mile run: 7 a.m. at 400 Washington Ave. Runners travel the parade route and Towson University’s campus starting at 8:15 a.m. 1776 (feet) Family Fun Run starts at 8:30 a.m. Registration $40 for runners, $20 for fun run.
Bike rush: 9:30 a.m. starting at the Towson University lot across from the Marriott Hotel. Children and their parents ride decorated patriotic bicycles through downtown Towson.
Parade: 10:30 a.m. rain or shine at Bosley and Burke avenues.
Parking: Municipal parking garages are free and the Towson Commons garage is $5. Street parking is permitted. Roads around the parade route will be closed. View a map of the parade route at https://www.towsonparade.com/map.
Nearby fireworks: Watch for fireworks from Loch Raven Technical Academy sometime between 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on the 4th (rain date July 5). More info at https://towsonfireworks.com.