18,000 attend Staunton's 49th annual 'Happy Birthday America' event

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STAUNTON, Va. (WHSV) — On Wednesday, Staunton held its 49th annual "Happy Birthday America" celebration.

The two-day event is a Staunton tradition that's been drawing thousands out every Fourth of July, since 1970.

For the first 24 years, the Statler Brothers were the featured concert, drawing up to 100,000 people to what was then called "Happy Birthday USA." You can check out WHSV coverage from their final 4th of July performance at Gypsy Hill Park here.

Then, from 1995-2017, it was called "America's Birthday Celebration" before the volunteer committee responsible dissolved after 2017's event and two sons of the Statler Brothers took over with a new committee that re-branded the event in a similar vein to the original.

The festivities actually began earlier in the week, with the Happy Birthday America Pageant, and then continued with a Vespers Service the evening of July 3, just like the celebration used to have in the first decades.

On Independence Day, celebrations began with the annual parade around Gypsy Hill Park. Thousands of people came out to the park to watch the parade, which was a little bit different than recent years.

For the first time in almost 20 years, there was a military band in the parade. The US Army's 29th Infantry Division band led the parade.

There was a little something for everyone at the parade. Trucks, police cars and fire trucks followed the route through Gypsy Hill Park.

There were also plenty of American flags, as well as candy, which is always a favorite for the younger ones.

"We've been coming ever since they were smaller than this, when they were babies," Russ Whitesell, a Staunton resident said. "We're from Staunton, so we've always come out to the Fourth of July. It's our heritage."

Lauren Hankins grew up coming to the parade and comes back every year, even though she now lives in Richmond.

"So, it's really special for us. I want my children to enjoy what we got to enjoy as children," Hankins said.

As the evening went on, many moved over to John Moxie Stadium, where the concerts began.

"Oh, this has been great. The vesper service was really inspiring last night and I look for nothing else than inspiration today," said David Walton, a Staunton resident.

Walton was one of the thousands who came out Wednesday, listening to music, watching the parade and buying lemonade.

Those with the city said the event is something special.

"We've had a lot of folks in Staunton today and we love it," said Andrea Oakes, Staunton City Council woman. "Everybody has been so cordial, excited. You can just feel the excitement in the air, it's been a good day."

In fact, the organizers of the celebration estimated, with the help of Staunton Police, that some 18,000 people attended festivities throughout the week at Gypsy Hill Park, from the pageant through the fireworks.

People played games liked cornhole to keep the fun going despite the heat, while everyone waited for the much anticipated fireworks display at night.

Volunteers and those who came out said they hope the celebration will be even bigger and better next year.

"They're absolutely wonderful for the city of Staunton and the surrounding area," said Walton. "Look at all the people that are here, you know, they're doing great. So, I hope there's more people."

"We want this to become a really really big event. Just like I said, what's old is new again. We want to bring it all back and build Staunton up again for July 4th," added Oakes.

Organizers said they are already planning next year's celebration in hopes for a bigger and brighter event.

2019 will mark the 50th annual occasion of the event.

This Friday, July 6, local PBS stations will broadcast a 2-hour special of the Wilson Fairchild concert, including a tribute to veterans, at 9 p.m. You can also watch a preview performance they gave in the WHSV studio earlier in the day above.