Stephen Lawler is a winter athlete, a born-and-bred Vermonter who loves to fly down snowy slopes. He competed at the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 and won a silver medal in downhill at the 2013 IPC Alpine Skiing World Championships.
But to Lawler, summer in Vermont is a special time, too, in part because of the Fourth of July. For many years, his family has held an Independence Day celebration worthy of a gold medal. It’s a gathering that has spread beyond family in the small community of Craftsbury, Vermont and includes fireworks, a petting zoo, a zip line, horse and hay rides, live music, a roasted pig, a huge bonfire and more.
It has even featured a few memorable near-catastrophes in setting off the annual sky show, which often begins before dark because folks just can’t wait.
“(One) time … a whole row of rockets fell over toward the crowd and a few cousins jumped behind my overturned wheelchair to use it as a barrier,” said Lawler.
Another year, one of his uncles fired off a rocket straight into an umbrella being held over his head by another uncle (so he could light the fuse in the rain).
So far, though, disasters have been avoided. There’s never been anything worse than a sprained ankle, and the crowd that gathers for the party at the family farm has left with nothing but good memories and the desire to do it all again next year.
It’s just a day to share a holiday on big swaths of green grass bordered by trees.
“The Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays,” said Lawler, 26. “It’s always a great party.”
A Community Affair
Originally, the July Fourth celebration was held on the property once farmed by Lawler’s great grandparents. The property shifted to a cousin, Tom Rowell, in the early 1990s.
“When my cousin, Tom, bought my great grandma’s house he invited us all over to celebrate the fourth,” said Lawler. “My mom, Deborah, and some of her sisters used to go over and help with the preparations and decorations the first few years. It’s mostly a real family event and everyone pitches in. Our gatherings are always potlucks, and we have some of the best cooks around.”
About seven years ago when that property was sold, the party shifted to a nearby site, a former working farm bought by another cousin, Dave Rowell.
In the early years, the gathering was mostly family from his maternal grandfather’s side. Lawler says he comes from a big clan — his grandmother was one of 16 children, his grandfather one of eight and his mom one of six — so it was sizable. Now, he says 50 to 70 take part annually.
“Some of my grandparents’ church members started coming, then some of the ‘summer folk,’ including musicians from New York City who would participate in the Craftsbury Chamber Players summer series,” he said. “ … Since moving to Dave’s farm in east Craftsbury, it has maintained great family attendance but has also become a great neighborhood event, which includes many of the students from Sterling College and the Craftsbury Outdoor Center.”
That center, in fact, has both Nordic and rowing programs, so a couple of Olympians, including biathletes Susan Dunklee and Hannah Dreissigacker, have attended.
“Anyone in the community is welcome,” said Lawler.
It’s a family-oriented, low-key gathering, said Lawler, where people share great food and “someone usually picks up a guitar and a few people join them in song.”
For the kids, a small petting zoo (including some miniature donkeys) is set up. They can also get rides on big workhorses.
The Fourth of July party has been a constant in Lawler’s life. Some years, he’s had to miss it while training in Colorado — he competes on a mono ski in a sitting position, after being born with spina bifida — but it’s something he tries his best to attend.
“The event (has) been about the same every year,” said Lawler. “Great food, music, drinks and lame but awesome fireworks.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.