The Colony by the Sea – Celebrating the 4th of July at Crystal Cove

Bonfires and illuminations from one end of the continent to the other” was how John Adams said the Declaration of Independence of the 13 original colonies should be celebrated, and at Crystal Cove — an original seaside colony at one end of the continent — this was exactly how the Fourth of July was celebrated for decades.

Like the firecrackers and 40-cent hamburgers once sold at Crystal Cove’s seasonal store, or the illuminated flotillas once made from wooden planks and highway flares, bonfires are now part of a bygone beach era — but visitors still return to the timeless Cove traditions of community and freedom on the Fourth of July.

The outdoor circumstances of the colony at Crystal Cove helped inspire its unique community customs. The hand-built cottages and summer tents originally pitched on the then-private Irvine Ranch land were simple shelters. Their main feature wasn’t luxurious beach seclusion but temporary indoor quarters for outdoor living. This common outdoor living created connections among neighbors from all walks of life — to each other and to a shared place.

The community-building effect of the Cove’s scrappy vernacular settlement is reflected in its year-round celebratory spirit, where there was always a reason to gather family and friends. From the raising of the martini flag to the annual tree-lighting, the cultural customs inspired by tide, sun, and season have always been festive, but they’ve also been opportunities to strengthen community with returned-to traditions and holidays like the Fourth of July.

For a place where every night was Saturday night, and every Saturday night was New Year’s Eve, the shared outdoor holiday of Fourth of July was also a fitting farewell to an era in Cove history.  As the last official holiday celebrated by the resident cottage community in 2001, that Fourth of July marked the transition of an 80-year idyll for cottage families, and the beginning of a new era of a larger community at Crystal Cove, built upon and inspired by the historic one.

Just as tent campers returned every summer to enjoy the Cove’s carefree lifestyle and reunite with friends back then, now families return on Fourth of July to do the same. Today, visitors might gather at a vintage restored cottage instead of a thatched-roof shack, or raise an umbrella instead of a tent at a favorite spot on the sand, or share a picnic instead of a cookout, while still carrying on the Cove’s timeless practices of community.

The historic district of Crystal Cove State Park now preserves the artifacts and cottages of the original seaside colony, as well as its spirit of carefree community — a legacy that shines as brightly now as a Fourth of July bonfire on the beach did then.

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