America’s Hometown Thanksgiving Celebration is fueled by community volunteers and the drive of an immigrant son.By Chris Reagle | Photography by Alyssa Stone,Jack Foley and Denise Maccaferri
Recognized for its historical focus and homegrown feel, America’s Hometown Thanksgiving Celebration (AHTC) is fast becoming the most cherished Thanksgiving event in the United States, outside of the more commercially themed Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. Held on the weekend before the national holiday, Plymouth’s three-day festival attracts an estimated 200,000 people to town each year with attendees enjoying patriotic concerts, delicious foods prepared by local restaurants, artisan crafters and historical exhibits.
Spectators fill the sidewalks along Main Street and Court Street, donning turkey hats and waving American flags, and cover the grassy slope of Cole’s Hill to watch the main event—the Thanksgiving parade. What the average viewer cannot see from this vantage point, however, is the hard work that goes on behind the scenes in the months and days leading up to the celebration.
“We couldn’t pull it off without the support of our corporate sponsors and the help of our wonderful volunteers,” says AHTC executive director Olly deMacedo, who has led the organization for the past 17 years. The event is produced almost entirely by community volunteers who step up to manage various components of the event and roll up their sleeves to help construct parade floats.
A few of the parade floats are used year after year, including a replica of the Mayflower II, a massive turkey with a head that turns from side to side, a harvest cornucopia filled with faux vegetables and a train that collects nonperishable food donations as it chugs down the street. For deMacedo, part of the fun is getting to dream up new float designs that help tell America’s story.
“I design all the floats,” says deMacedo, whose day job is managing concrete facilities for Boston Sand and Gravel. “I come up with all the ideas and I build all the floats. It allows me to be creative and tell stories that should not be forgotten.”
The floats are constructed and housed in old beer storage facilities in Plymouth, generously provided by Jerry and Maureen Sheehan, the owners of the Kingston-based beer distributing company L. Knife & Son. “For 20 years, those old buildings have been our home,” says deMacedo. “The Sheehan family allows us to be there, which allows us to tell the story. They don’t charge us anything. We can’t be thankful enough.”
There are three to five new float designs each year. Last year, they designed a float to recognize the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. “It was a beautiful float with the World War I bi-plane. But after the parade was over we had to dismantle it and take it all apart so that will never be seen again.”
After spending multiple weekends hammering and painting, the production team comes together to kick off the celebrations at an invitation-only reception to honor the volunteers, donors and sponsors. Members of the media are also in attendance as are legislators like Congressman Bill Keating, Massachusetts State Senator Vinny deMacedo.
Plymouth resident Louise Houston, chairman of the VIP event, greets guests as they arrive. Leo and Nancy Martin, owners of Plymouth’s historic Jenney Museum, come dressed in 17th century-style attire accompanied by a similarly dressed friend from across the pond, the Rev. Robert Farrell, who’s been in the states for the past year conducting historical research.
“I’m a Christian pastor from England and I’m here to prepare for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower crossing, so these are my people,” says Farrell. “I came here to reclaim the nation that we lost.”
Guests fraternize and feast together while awaiting a few words from deMacedo, who arrives in a flourish with his wife and children and revs up the crowd for the big day ahead. After multiple handshakes and photo-ops, deMacedo exits to check on a few last-minute parade-related items on his never-ending to-do list.
Bright and early the next morning, parade participants line up at their assigned muster stations with flags and banners in tow and deMacedo and his team of 200 volunteers hit the ground running. They navigate numerous logistical hurtles, from managing motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic to coordinating food concessions, vendors and cleanup.
The parade features a chronological procession of 17 themed historical floats, from the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620—and how they survived their first winter with the help of the Native Americans—to the present day. Last year’s parade lineup included eight professional marching bands (with some ensembles traveling from Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania), several local high school bands, historical reenactors, equestrian presenters, antique and classic motor vehicles and representatives from local civic and community organizations and area businesses.
Organizers work hard to maintain the parade’s historical accuracy and to honor those who’ve made sacrifices to keep the nation safe and free. In 2017, the parade’s theme, “Freedom is Not Free,” honored the veterans of wars the United States has been involved in the 400 years since Europeans started colonizing the untamed frontier that would become America. It especially recognized World War I veterans, as 2017 marked the centennial of “the war to end all wars”. Many of the floats featured war-era and military themes and vehicles. In nearby Brewster Garden several national and international military re-enactment groups camped in the park for the three-day event, allowing the public to view period artifacts and ask questions.
deMacedo’s own sense of patriotism runs deep. His family moved to America from Cape Verde when he was 6-year-old. He learned a new language and culture and went on to become a citizen and successful businessman.
“My brother Olly has worked so hard and I just want you all to know that what happens here is because of his love of this great nation and what it has provided him and his family,” says Massachusetts State Senator Vinny deMacedo speaking to the crowd of parade spectators. After a few remarks acknowledging various state and local dignitaries, the younger deMacedo hands off the mic.
“Welcome everyone,” says the elder deMacedo to a thunderous applause. “Thank you to our sponsors and individual supporters. Please patronize their businesses as they make this parade happen.”
“When I think of Thanksgiving, I think about being grateful for the fact that I can be here, free to pursue anything that I want and make it a reality,” says deMacedo. “This is what this great land has offered us and it all started here in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Rejoice in our story, but most of all be thankful. God bless and enjoy!”
America’s Hometown Thanksgiving Celebration will take place on November 16-18. For a complete list of events, visit usathanksgiving.com.