EVERGLADES CITY — The lost wonder of small-town America came rolling back to life Sunday.
In Everglades City, residents from Collier County’s southernmost reaches gathered for an Independence Day celebration that harkens back to a time most people only recall from childhood memories or learn about in Norman Rockwell paintings.
“There’s nothing like this anymore,” said Lily Perraud, a resident of Everglades City and Fort Lauderdale. “Did you know the town of Everglades City always celebrates on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July?”
Perraud occupied a lawn chair beside her husband, George Perraud, taking in the annual parade with their son, daughter-in-law and their son’s in-laws. They jokingly compare the parade to the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
But they say this with no ill will, no hidden sarcasm. They say they love the nature of this intimate celebration, marked with symbols of the pioneering spirit that led to the settlement of Everglades City.
The fireworks display, which Everglades City Mayor Sammy Hamilton calls the second-best in the state — “The only one that’s better is Disneyworld,” he says — crackle over the center of town, and everyone, no matter how small, can get a birds-eye view of the show.
“It’s almost like doing a big fireworks show in your own backyard,” said George Gonzalez, 51, who came to Everglades City from Plantation with his family Sunday.
They stood before Everglades City Hall as the honor guard raised the flag just after noon, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and watching dutifully as a group of Sons of Confederate Veterans Civil War reenactors fired off a cannon across the field adjacent to the city square.
“It’s a small town, so everybody knows everybody. It’s like a family gathering,” said Gonzalez. “If you think about it, we’re almost like a little time capsule over here.”
The only drawback, Gonzalez said: “They fire the fireworks over the mangroves and scare all of the mosquitoes out of the mangroves, so they come over here.”
For starters on Sunday, though, Eric Smith and his wife and son, all members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, scared more than just the mosquitoes by setting off a Civil War cannon reserved for special occasions like this. They practice safety drills for 20 minutes before they begin, said Smith, 51, and they clear the area in front of the cannon of all people and animals.
“You can feel the percussion over there,” Smith said, pointing 100 yards or so in front of the cannon. “It’s a hobby, definitely, but it’s a very dangerous hobby.”
The Smiths also took part in Saturday’s parade in Bonita Springs, where Lori Smith was born and raised.
“It’s a small town, and they haven’t forgotten about our values,” said Lori Smith, pointing to what makes Everglades City special.
The Smiths now live in Muse, just northeast of LaBelle.
“Being a southern boy myself, I love the Sons of the Confederates,” said Mitch Mitchell, 70, who played guitar and sang over an amplifier in the shade of the town’s pavillion. “I love the cannon.”
While the Smiths’ handiwork with the cannon was frightening the mosquitoes, it also sent the Richards family dog running for cover. One-year-old Harley cowered beneath her owners’ legs with each blast of gunpowder from the cannon.
The family, Chris, Donnelle and their son, Evan, 7, spent the day of July 4 helping decorate a parade float for the Backcountry Cafe. Donnelle Richards works at the cafe, and the family sat on a guard rail across the street from city hall with Evan’s best friend, Kyle McMillan, 7, watching the floats roll by.
The floats ranged from golf carts to pickup trucks to hulking vehicles built atop tractor wheels with a crude truck bed and bench-style seating. From there, occupants tossed candy and plastic necklaces.
Children scooped them up, filling plastic bags and their shirt fronts.
“We’ve been coming here so long,” said Lily Perraud. “We’ve seen so much change: buildings burned down and blown away, but we keep coming back. It’s like our little hideaway.”
She puts her finger to her lips, saying they want to keep their little paradise to themselves a bit longer, asking the people around them to help keep this frozen-in-time town a secret. And then they’re off to celebrate with a military band performance and their own backyard fireworks show.