Cities and towns across the state demonstrate their patriotic pride by hosting parades, fireworks shows and other family activities, but few in the Des Moines metro boast the kind of freedom festival that West Des Moines does every year. This year’s red-white-and-blue festivities set for July 3-4 are sure to be some of the grandest patriotic parties in the area as organizers once again are leaving little to the imagination.
“The parade on July 3 and the fireworks show on July 4 bookend the celebration, but there are other activities for people to get out and enjoy during the holiday,” says Todd Seaman, superintendent of recreation for the West Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department.
Valley Junction will host its annual Independence Day Street Celebration immediately following the West Des Moines Parade on Wednesday, July 3. The free event lasts from 5 to 11 p.m. in the 100 block of 5th Street and Railroad Park and includes kids activities and inflatables, a beverage garden and food vendors and a free concert by Bob Dorr and The Blue Band from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m.
This year’s Valley Junction festival though has a unique twist to it because organizers are adding its weekly farmers market to the mix. Instead of hosting the market on Thursday, the market will be held Wednesday, July 3 and will open at 4 p.m.
“We’ll see what happens. We’ve never combined the two events before,” says Jim Miller, executive director of the Valley Junction Foundation. Weather permitting, he anticipates a large crowd that evening.
“We get a great crowd for our regular farmers market, and we get a great crowd for the Fourth of July festival, so as long as the weather cooperates it should be a special night,” Miller says. “But like a lot of things we do that are outdoors, we depend on good weather.”
Once again, the Valley Junction party will stay open until 11 p.m. to accommodate vendors. Last year was the first year in which the event ran longer than in previous years, and it was such a success organizers decided to do it again.
“Our vendors asked for it to run longer because in years past when the parade has ran long it cuts into the Street Celebration,” Miller says. “But we promise to still be good neighbors.”
Miller says that the holiday festival typically draws about 5,000 people and has been held in Valley Junction every year since 1995. It is one of the district’s most popular events, alongside its annual Cinco de Mayo festival and Smokin’ in the Junction barbecue contest.
“It truly is one of our favorite events because it is West Des Moines-centric. It’s a tradition in that people watch the parade and show up here afterwards,” he says. “We see more families with young children than any other event we do. Families love the patriotic atmosphere and spending time together. The crowds really get cooking here in Valley Junction once school is out.”
This year’s parade will travel a new route, beginning at 39th Street and Ashworth Road heading east, then south on Vine Street and will end on 6th and Maple streets due to some construction on Vine Street, instead of Fifth Street as it has in years past. Lineup for the parade’s approximately 80 participants begins at 5:15 p.m. on the west side of Valley High School and the parade starts at 6:30 p.m. Organizers estimate that about 10,000 residents and visitors will line the parade route that stretches a little more than three miles and lasts about 90 minutes.
“That’s probably a conservative estimate,” says Seaman, adding that there is no fee to participate and that the parade includes local businesses, organizations, drill teams, dance schools, sports teams, civic groups, churches, youth groups, clowns, horses and neighborhood associations.
Entry into the parade is coveted as organizers often have to turn away late requests. Deadline for entry in this year’s parade is June 14. Applications can be picked up at the West Des Moines Parks and Recreation office at City Hall or they can call 222-3459 for more details.
“A few years ago, we let the parade get too big and it got out of hand, so we decided to limit the number of entries and make the hour and a half as much fun as possible,” says Seaman.
Organizers say that the parade bonds the community during the holiday like few other events in West Des Moines do.
“It creates a sense of community,” Seaman says. “It’s a local way for people to be connected to the community. It’s also probably one of the bigger parades in central Iowa if not the state.
“The other thing that impresses me the most is not only the diversity of entries but the diversity of people along the route. I also like to see how families who live along the parade route have family and friends over for a picnic or cookout. It’s pretty neat.”
Cash prizes of $100 are awarded to three parade entries who win the Mayor’s, Judge’s Choice and Serendipity awards. Seaman says that city employees who work along the parade route are asked to serve as judges.
“Typically it’s members of the Parks and Rec staff,” he says. “They make notes on entries who went above and beyond and they try to recognize those. The cash prize is in recognition of the effort that they made.”
The biggest prize of the parade, according to Seaman, is the smiles on the faces of those along the parade route.
“Sometimes the parents get just as excited as the kids do when people are handing out candy,” he says. “It’s just people having fun.”
Other events taking place in West Des Moines during the holiday celebration include the horseshoe competition and mud volleyball tournament.
The West Des Moines Firefighters Association and West Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department will host the 31st Annual 4th of July Mud Volleyball Tournament on July 4 at West Des Moines Raccoon River Park, 2500 Grand Ave. Games begin at 8 a.m. and will be held rain or shine with a limit of 32 teams. Deadline for registration is July 1 with a fee of $20 per player that includes a free T-shirt to be picked up the morning of the competition at Limey’s Pub, 1970 Grand Ave., which will serve food and drinks at the tournament.
Another traditional competition to be held that day is the Holiday Classic Horseshoe Tournament at Holiday Park at noon. It is hosted by the West Des Moines Horseshoe Pitchers Association.
“We’ve got a very active horseshoe pitching community here in West Des Moines,” says Seaman. “It’s a fun sport, and it’s one of those traditional activities that gives our celebration its small-town feel.”
The festivities for the Fourth of July conclude at Raccoon River Park that evening with a concert by the West Des Moines Community Band at 7 p.m. and a fireworks show hosted by the West Des Moines Fire Department at dusk. The fireworks show attracts thousands of visitors as families sprawl out on blankets to watch the fireworks light up the sky over Blue Heron Lake. The dazzling display of pyrotechnic devices lasts more than 30 minutes and is a longstanding tradition in West Des Moines.
“It’s a huge undertaking, and we’re one of the few cities that doesn’t hire it out. Our volunteer and paid firefighters work hard to prepare the show. It’s just another example of the kind of small-town feel we have on July 4,” says Seaman, who estimates that the crowd to watch fireworks is nearly as large as the one that watches the parade.
“The crowds at the park have grown over the years,” he says. “Part of the attraction is the setting and seeing them fired over the lake. It makes it that more special.”