By Jeffrey Kanode for RealWV,
EDITOR’S NOTE: The author of this piece, Jeffrey Kanode, serves as pastor of the Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church, referenced in this article.
Conversations with participants and spectators reveal some recurring themes explaining why the Alderson Fourth of July parade attracts so many people, year after year after year. For many, the parade serves as the cornerstone of a week filled with events that are simultaneously rooted in memory, grounded in the present, and hoped in for the future. Somehow, these opposites create a harmony of experience and expectation.
Sara Hensler grew up in Alderson. The daughter of Roy and Linda Loudermilk, she now teaches school in North Carolina. Though she and her husband are raising their children far from Alderson, Alderson remains an integral part of the family’s life.
“We come back every year,” Sara said. “My girls have come all their lives. Our youngest, Ella, was just months old when she came to her first Fourth.” That was 2012, the year the derecho wreaked havoc on so much of West Virginia.
Sara’s oldest daughter, Emma, now brings her best friend, Caroline. “Caroline came with us last year, and she absolutely wanted to come back this year,” Sara noted with a laugh. Emma and Caroline are rising sophomores in high school in Mooresville, and the dichotomy between their Carolina home and what they experience here draws both of them to Alderson.
“Alderson is so much smaller,” Caroline said.
“Everyone knows everyone else,” Emma added.
“It’s a tradition. We’ll come back every year,” Caroline concluded.
Sara Hensler leads the creation and production of Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church’s Fourth parade float every year. Children and teens from the church family—kids from Alderson to North Carolina—ride and wave and throw out candy from their perch high up on a float that this year featured scenes from “wild and wonderful and free” West Virginia.
The Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church also enters what has lovingly become known as “the water wagon” into the parade each year. Members of the congregation walk the parade route giving out bottles of ice cold water. This ministry has now become deeply woven into the tapestry of the Alderson Fourth of July parade. Rev. Sam Groves, Johnson Memorial’s Pastor Emeritus, said that 2023 marks the nineteenth year the water wagon has been rolling.
“We’ve probably given out 60,000 bottles of water by now,” Sam said with a grin. “What did the Gospel lesson say last week? ‘Whoever gives a cup of cold water to these little ones…’ Well, we are trying to do that. The church needs to be visible outside the walls.”
Randy Auvil served in Greenbrier Count Schools for thirty seven years, primarily as a special education teacher at Greenbrier East High School, and later as the principal at Greenbrier West High School. His wife Phyllis worked in the Alderson Library for twenty-nine years. Together, the Auvils have been coming to the Alderson Fourth parade for forty-five years.
“We see people we don’t see throughout the year. It’s like a reunion,” Randy reflected. Compared to many Alderson parade goers, Rachel Johnson could still considered a new comer. She and her three children have lived in Alderson for four years. Rachel grew up in Morristown, Tennessee. Today she works as a waitress and in the kitchen at an Alderson institution, the Big Wheel Restaurant. For her, the parade really reflects why she wants to raise her children in Alderson. “We love being in a small town. There’s family, friends, talks and walks around town. I bring my children to the parade so they can have fun and see everyone. We love it,” Rachel said.
This year, a horse drawn carriage graced the parade. Atop that carriage rode Layla Pence, rising senior at Greenbrier East, and 2023’s Miss Fireworks. “I wanted to be different, so hence the carriage,” Layla said with a laugh. As she brought something novel to the parade, she also tapped into the positivity of memory and experience which surrounds the parade for so many people. “I love representing the Alderson Fourth of July celebration. There have been lots of great events. I am just so proud to represent such a great town. The people of Alderson welcome you with open arms,” she said.
The memories and the histories deepen, with eyes already looking forward to 2024.