Fewer than 1400 people live in Pekin, Indiana, Washington County’s second largest burg, after Salem. But the southern Indiana town swells tenfold every Fourth of July, when as many as 15,000 people are in attendance for the annual Independence Day celebration. Although every small town across the nation marks the Fourth in one way or another, Pekin is credited with having the oldest consecutive Fourth of July celebration in the U.S. Across the nation, the country’s independence had been feted with song, fireworks and merriment since the summer of 1776. In 1778, the first Independence Day oration west of the Allegheny Mountains was delivered in Marietta, Ohio. A celebration in Kentucky dates to July 4 th, 1794; one in Hawaii, to 1814.
Although these observances predate it, the Pekin celebration is noteworthy for having recurred annually since its inception in 1830, when several families gathered for the 54 th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Though Pekin was platted on the south side of the Blue River in 1831, within twenty years a station for passengers traveling on the New Albany and Salem Railroad was built on the river’s more level north side. By 1854, the mostly vacated south side became “Old Pekin” and the thriving north side, “New Pekin,” where the Fourth festivities resumed. The Independence Day parade would proceed from the train station, from which townsfolk would escort arriving visitors, to a family farm.
By 1885, the event found a home at a fairgrounds run by the Washington and Clark County Park Association , although some staid Pekinites continued to hold a competing event at a spot known as Tash’s Grove. The fairgrounds became known as Gill’s Grove, and eventually Pekin Community Park, when they were purchased in 1954 by the Pekin Community Betterment Organization. The group continues to plan the event, which has added a hot-air balloon race, a basketball tournament and a Fourth of July queen contest to the usual revelry.
Incidentally, although “New Pekin” is the name officially registered with the State of Indiana, according to the U.S. Postal Service, and most locals, the town’s called Pekin. In the meantime, Pekin’s patriotic claim to fame was been challenged by the town of Bristol, Rhode Island which contends that it has celebrated the Fourth continuously since 1785.
Pekin is pronounced “PEEK-ihn”