For a warm and fuzzy way to kick off the Fourth of July, toss your camp chairs in the car and head for Geneva, a rural corner of Seminole County along SR 46.
The first year, it was the lemonade stand that caught my eye. Lemonade stands were a summer thing where I grew up, a delightful intersection of childhood ingenuity and neighbors helping out neighbors. You don’t see them any more, but here it was, smack on the corner where the parade would make its turn, and my friend Joan suggested we plop our camp chairs right there for the show to unfurl around us. As it turned out, it was the perfect spot.
It was my first time in the tiny rural town of Geneva. Although it’s surrounded by a bevy of great natural lands and hikes I’d written about before, I never had a need to take a closer look at the town. But Joan said that on 4th of July, Geneva was the place to be, and invited me to join her for the annual celebration.
It felt like we’d stepped into a Normal Rockwell painting. Someone handed us American flags. Antique autos, bicycles, and even horses’ bridles were done up in patriotic colors. Visitors parked down in a field by the heritage center, and walked up the street with their camp chairs, staking a spot along the parade route, which flowed from the school grounds in a loop around town on 1st Street, Avenue C, 2nd Street, and Florida Avenue. Some years it goes in reverse.
After a air-show worthy flyover by the vintage warplanes of the Valiant Air Command, the parade commenced with a fast-pedaling crowd of youngsters in red, white, and blue face paint, t-shirts, and ribbons, riding their bicycles and tooting their horns.
The Boy Scouts were there, and the Girl Scouts, too, as well as 4H and the FFA, and an array of veterans groups. An antique auto show that kicks off the day poured its contents out into the parade route, with drivers and passengers tossing candy to the gathered crowd. Small children squealed in delight. Of course, Smokey the Bear is always there with the Florida Forest Service.
Each year there’s a heritage theme around which the community builds floats, usually inspirational and patriotic and nature. The top floats win cash prizes. There is also a Grand Marshal each year.
As I returned year after year – and introduced John to this step back in time – the only glitch I ever saw in the parade happened when there was a problem getting a certain member of Congress into the flow of the parade. Was he late? No matter, he delayed the parade, and now he’s not in office any more.
You never know what you’ll see or who you’ll meet during this delightfully down-home extravaganza of patriotism, but it’s always somewhere you can bring the family. One thing you will experience is the friendly nature of this rural community. With less than 3,000 people, Geneva is still a place where farming and ranching is a way of life, and the cemetery dates back to 1880.
Residents have orange groves, blueberry farms, nurseries, and cattle ranches. Although the community is in unincorporated Seminole County, it’s squeezed by development pressures creeping out from Oviedo. We do hope that Seminole County takes their “rural residential area” designation seriously and allows this corner of the county, through zoning, to stay rural.
The Geneva Rural Heritage Center is always open on July 4th, and it’s central to activities for the morning. When Joan first introduced me to this celebration, she ended up entering a cakewalk contest, and won! Housed in the historic Geneva School House, the Rural Heritage Center hosts community events, especially dances. Members are developing the WalkingTree Folk School – which we hope to see open soon – to train younger generations in classic folk arts.
Closer to SR 46, the Museum of Geneva History will also be open, and well worth a look. Inside, the history of the region fills the rooms, which showcase the citrus, cattle, and turpentine industries that blossomed in the late 1800s. Artifacts from pioneer families provide a sense of days gone by.
So if you’re looking for a family-friendly Fourth of July celebration, head for Geneva. Bring your own chairs and stake out a spot on the parade route. Young entrepreneurs sell cold drinks at reasonable prices, youth and civic groups offer food, and if you show up early enough – by 9 AM – you can walk around the antique car show on the elementary school grounds. The parade always starts at 10 AM and lasts up to an hour.