Two hundred clowns, 150 motorcyclists, 60 horses, 20 bands, two camels and up to a half-dozen men driving motorized ice chests.

All that plus a couple of thousand Shriners will put Charlotte in the national spotlight today as host to one of the world s biggest and perhaps funniest July 4 parades.

No matter what, it will be patriotic to its core.

Wednesday's parade begins at 2:30 p.m., and the route is straight down Tryon Street, starting at 10th Street and ending at Stonewall Street.

Independence Day is the nation s oldest secular holiday, and parades are its longest-running tradition, dating back to the late 1700s.

Charlotte is lucky this year. The holiday coincides with a Shriners International convention, and we all know about Shriners and parades. Give one of these guys two coat hangers, some Elmer s Glue and a grocery cart and he ll come up with a float that spins on its back wheels and shoots fire.

Yet the three-hour Shriner extravaganza won t muscle out local traditions at least 15 other parades will be held today in communities surrounding Charlotte, including Harrisburg, Indian Trail, Oakboro, Matthews and Waxhaw.

Nearly all will feature kids on bikes, fire engines, beauty queens in convertibles, marching bands and a couple of politicians.

The best will have a few decorated floats. The not-so-fancy ones will make do with somebody pulling a dog in a red wagon.

Eventually, watermelons will show up, either as the subject of an eating contest or a seed-spitting competition.

David Hicks, who works with the Hickory Grove parade, says the multitude of grassroots events could be credited to the idea that a July Fourth celebration has no requirements. It s not about religion, military service, giving expensive gifts or cooking a turkey.

You have holidays like Memorial Day and Veterans Day, that are supposed to be solemn, but July Fourth is a birthday party, said Hicks.

We celebrate the birth of our nation and its survival for 200-plus years. If a president loses an election, we say Too bad for you and move on. No upheaval. No death of a king. What a miracle that is.

Hickory Grove s parade run by volunteers is about 45 years old, he said.

Older still is the parade in Charlotte s Coulwood community, believed to be 54 years old.

The community has about 1,000 homes, but has attracted as many as 8,000 people to its parade, said Andrew DeCann, of the community s parade council.

He remembers being in the parade multiple times as a kid, while his mother served as an organizer and his dad did manual labor. Now, DeCann and his wife, Kimberly, have taken over those roles and their two children are in the parade.

It s like a big family reunion, he said, with up to 300 participants each year. Awards are given for best float, best motorized vehicle and best bike.

All you have to do is show up and we ll find a way to get you in the parade, said DeCann. We even have people just walking. It s a spontaneous kind of thing that has a lot to do with having a sense of community ... a kind of spirit.

Tradition since 1700s

Experts say events like the Coulwood parade are an example of Americans carrying on a tradition dating back to the late 1700s. Back then, newspapers would announce an Independence Day parade and invite citizens to participate, said James Heintze, author of The Fourth of July Encyclopedia.

It was considered good citizenship to be a volunteer in these parades, Heintze said.

The first major parade was held in 1788 in Philadelphia, when Congress was still trying to get states to ratify the new Constitution, he said. Things grew from there, fueled by the idea that July 4th parades are open to all.

You don t have to be a professional, he said, noting lawn chair parades have popped up in some towns. There are precision marching groups carrying aluminum, lightweight lawn chairs, and (they) open them up and sit down.

The town of Harrisburg can relate.

Locals there have a reputation for ingenious home-built floats that often cost much more than the few hundred dollars given in prize money. On average, 30 floats are in the parade, said Benita Conrad, who in 1998 developed the parade with the help of her parents, Ben and Sylvia Lowder.

Is it hometown pride or is it patriotism? asked Conrad. Probably both.

Last year, a Harrisburg businessman wowed everyone by building a float featuring a military ship with a Japanese plane crashing into it, she said.

Then there was the year a local plumber built a themed float with a real guy sitting on a toilet and real kids in a nearby bathtub.

He was reading the newspaper as the float went by, Conrad recalled. Everyone loved it.

Let s see the Shriners top that.

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