VFW hosts Independence Day celebration

Ed Moreth, Sanders County Ledger - 7/13/2023

Ed Moreth

DECLARING INDEPENDENCE – Volunteers recite the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July at Fred Young Park as part of a celebration put on by VFW Post 3596. The readers include, from left: Randy Evans, Jim Gillibrand, Noah Hathorne, Hunter Fielders (reading), Blair Blizzard, and Charee Fielders.


Fred Young Park was donned with Americana motif and people with plenty of red, white and blue as VFW Post 3596 Commander Ron Kilbury manned the burger grill for Independence Day 2023.

It's unsure how long the VFW in Plains has been putting on a Fourth of July celebration, but it's been at least since Army veteran Don Kunzer joined the VFW in 1979. Jim Gillibrand of Plains, also a veteran soldier, has been a participant in the event since he joined the club almost 30 years ago. Gillibrand was one of six volunteers this year to recite the Declaration of Independence, the historic document that gave birth to the nation in 1776. Readers included first-time reciters Randy Evans and Blair Blizzard, along with Noah Hathorne, who read it last year with Gillibrand. The other two readers were Charee Fielders – who recited it three years ago with her husband, Shawn Fielders – and Hunter Fielders, an Army veteran who once again donned his uniform for the reading.

It took the group only about 10 minutes to get through the document's 1,337 words, but they received a number of cheers at the end. Charee Fielders gave the spectators an added lesson in colonial history on the fate of several of the signers.

"Five signers were captured by the British as traitors and were tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons in the revolutionary army, another had two sons captured. Nine of the 56 fought and died from or hardships of the Revolutionary War," said Fielders.

It was the Free Americans that started the tradition of reciting the Declaration three years ago. "I was afraid I was going to break down and cry. I cracked a couple times," said Blizzard, a member of the Free Americans who served as a photographer in the Army from 1972-75. "It's a wonderful document. Everybody should read it every day," said Gillibrand.

"I think it's a refreshing reminder of the freedom we in the United States enjoy," said Bill Beck, a Navy veteran of 26 years. Beck and Ken Matthiesen, who served in the Army and Navy, were also on hand to sell raffle tickets for a Chiappa Firearms' 22-caliber rifle on behalf of American Legion Post 52 of Thompson Falls. The gun was won by Tom Meek of Plains. The VFW had several raffles going, but the one drawing for that day was a Traditions Buckstalker black powder rifle that was won by Chuck Bandel of Plains.

The VFW event this year had some new activities, including lawn games – giant checkers, washer toss, cornhole and tic-tac-toe – as well as a photo backdrop with head cutouts of Uncle Sam and Lady Columbia. The club also hired a band, the Trent Brooks Band of Great Falls. The VFW served 280 hamburgers, 240 hot dogs, and four gallons of potato salad, which ran out around 12:30 p.m., according to Heather Allen, the VFW's quartermaster and the event's primary coordinator. She said they also gave out four gallons of cherries, 30 bags of chips, two cases of water and six cases of soda.

"This is awesome for the community. I appreciate their efforts and their service," said Sanders County Commissioner Dan Rowan.

The grill this year was manned by Kilbury, Hathorne and Gene Ross. Allen estimated there were around 350 people at the four-hour Independence Day celebration, which might be a record. "That was more than double what we normally have out there," said Allen, an Air Force veteran. She said the event went well and the games were a big hit. "All together, the VFW spent close to $3,000 to put the event on. We brought in about $640 in donations, which is also about double from normal," said Allen, who added that the VFW is looking to raise $5 million or more to make the VFW building completely handicap accessible. She said they'd like to add an arcade, ax throwing, elevators and a much better venue to rent.

Allen thinks that maybe some in attendance left with a better understanding of the Founding Fathers with the reading of the Declaration and the oral lesson of the signers. She believes the Free Americans started a great tradition, and it added a patriotic flavor to the event. She added that the VFW plans to continue that tradition each year. "The reading of The Declaration of Independence certainly adds to the meaning of the event," said Kilbury, "reminding everyone why we celebrate our independence."