Freedom Fest

Freedom Fest

          When I grew up, it was a seemingly simple affair. We were a small family, myself an only child, and our extended family didn’t visit often. During the cold-weather holidays, we would always venture their way, with some dish wrapped tightly in towels and hot pan holders, and drive the hour or so to Hudsonville, Jenison, Allendale. We met on their turf. We sat on their couches and enjoyed their routines, flanked by first cousins and second, aunts and uncles whose names I still hardly recall, on every side.

            Fourth of July, though, was the one exception. The extended family I speak of grew up in wonderful communities; their subdivisions filled with other families with kids, they grew up with play-buddies, neighborhood BBQs, school functions. But they did not grow up on the lake. So when it came time to celebrate in the heat of the summer, it was my family’s turn to host. They would show up in mini-vans carrying red, white and blue coolers, and arrive just before noon to my parent’s house in Croton. We would walk to the end of the road, tiny pop up chairs and red wagons in tow, and watch the parade. Each of the kids holding a bag, we would run back and forth down the road collecting candy as the old cars, floats, and firetrucks went by. I remember grilling in the late afternoon, the smell of burgers in the air, brightly colored swimsuits jumping in and out of the water.

            For the grand finale of our celebration, we would load into my parent’s pontoon boat, “putzing” slowly across the lake as the daylight turned to evening. We would park under the causeway in Croton, and watch the 10-minute firework display, our faces turned up to ecstatic blues and reds and oranges, exploding and falling into nothing.

            They are like fairytales, these memories to me. Highlighted by bright colors, shouting yips and yaps from my cousins diving off the docks, the booming of fireworks. They are memories I hold tightly as I age, wrapping myself in their familial fabric.

            It’s been many years, but this summer I came home for the fourth of July celebrations once again. My cousins have grown up, moved on, moved out, but my parents and grandparents still get together and spend the afternoon. I’m not sure what I expected out of the celebration, this year held on Saturday, July 7th. Perhaps I was afraid it would fall flat given my nostalgia associated with the holidays of my past.

But let me be clear:

The celebration has only gotten better, and if you haven’t visited the Croton area to celebrate (the now dubbed) Freedom Fest, next year you need to.

            The road closes down around noon, and the 45-minute parade begins. There are groups walking in the parade: Veterans and high school marching bands, hopeful politicians. There are classic cars rolling by, firetrucks, decorated floats from businesses around Newaygo. There’s music and thrown candy. There are kids and families everywhere, most wearing red, white, and blue, some with painted faces. They are holding blue pinwheels, or streamers, or signs.

            Croton remains busy for the rest of the day. Local restaurants open (now including The Jetty!), the beach fills, and boaters drag tubers across the lake. Beginning in the late afternoon, the Driftwood hosts a band on their deck, and the place is packed. You can hear the music across the pond, down the street. There are motorcyclists, bicyclists, neighbors walking all across town. The place is alive and it feels like summer, feels like celebrating, feels like thankfulness to be a part of it all.

            As day rolls into evening, Croton has a finale all its own. The road again closes between the causeway, and fences are erected. For 1/4 mile, beginning at 6:30, Freedom Fest is made up by food vendors, a beer tent, and live music. There are picnic tables throughout, and the lines for fresh food weave through the throngs of attendees. It’s free to enter, and thousands show up to spend the evening. The music (This year The Denise Anderson Connection) pumps through town until 10 pm, stopping only for the explosion of the first firework over the pond.

            I promise you it was not the nostalgia talking, but this year the firework display was the best I’ve seen. It went on for 20 minutes, and over and over again I was tricked, thinking I was witnessing the finale, as explosion after explosion lit up the pond and boomed throughout its channels. There were groups watching on the causeway, set up on blankets and folding chairs, and boats of all kinds on the lake, the whole place buzzing with energy and excitement. By the time it was over, the causeway had opened up again, and those who had driven from out of town slowly made their way to pile back into their cars to begin the trip home.

            It was amazing, seeing thousands of people in the tiny corridor I call my home. Families are growing, and with them, our town is too. I am thankful that people recognize the beauty that is Newaygo County, and I am thankful for our community for continuing to pursue events that bring us all together. I haven’t been home to celebrate Independence Day the last decade, but after this year, I’ve promised myself I won’t again miss it.

We would not be celebrating Independence Day without our Veterans. So to those who have, who do, or who will serve, thank you for giving us the freedom to celebrate our home.

For more information on Freedom Fest and other events in our area, visit the River Country Chamber of Commerce website at: https://www.rivercountrychamber.com

by Carmen Faulkner

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About The Author

Carmen Faulkner

Carmen Faulkner is an avid travel enthusiast who grew up in Newaygo County. When she isn’t on the road, she splits her time between her home in Newaygo and the mountains of British Columbia. Her love for all things outdoors is paralleled only to her appreciation of food, coffee, and craft beer. You can find her in our community kayaking down the Muskegon River, hiking the North Country Trail, or enjoying the small businesses of downtown Newaygo.