Woodrow Wilson's hometown threw a birthday party for 50,000 people today with fireworks and flags, a tractor-drawn parade and some sugar-cured country music.
But except for Wilson's Pierce-Arrow, which was included in a fleet of antique cars, the 28th president seemed forgotten. This drowsy southern town was enraptured by four other favorite sons.
"This is Statler Brothers day," said Robert Lisle, one of the town fathers embedded in the back seat of a parade-bound convertible. "I don't think Woodrow Wilson really has any part in it."
The Staunton-born Statler Brothers, one of the hottest vocal groups in country music, have catapulted this town's Independence Day celebration into one of the largest in Virginia since they began playing an annual free concert here 11 years ago.
This year's two-day fest began Thursday night with some flag-waving and "Amazing Grace" at a community vesper service and ended tonight after a foot-stomping concert by the Statlers and guest star Brenda Lee on the town's Little League field.
In between came square dancing, softball, a curious Civil War reenactment and a parade that was as charming as it was unpolished. "You just can't find this anywhere else," said Bonnie Whetstone, who traveled to Staunton from South Carolina in a caravan of relatives this year for the sixth time.
A calliope tootled past as she spoke. Behind it a unit of senior citizens revved their mopeds, followed by the world's smallest horses, a float filled with Fourth of July babies and the mandatory beauty queen, this year's Miss Augusta County Farm Bureau.
The crowd applauded politely until the Statler Brothers appeared on their jeep-drawn float, constructed by the local Moose Club. Then they hollered.
"The Statlers is our boys," said Dorothy Sites, a gray-haired and hot-blooded local fan who considers the Statlers nothing less than kin. "If you want to make them mad, just say something to them about leaving Staunton."
Local folks are flattered by the loyalty of the Statler Brothers, who in fact aren't all brothers, aren't named Statler, and took their stage name from a now-defunct tissue company. Despite more than 10 million records sold, almost 200 country music awards and enough money to buy everything worth owning in this city of 23,000 people, the Statlers have shunned the glitter of Nashville and Hollywood to remain in Staunton.
Country music fans in general admire them for another kind of loyalty to the moral values they started with as a gospel group 16 years ago.
"There is a strain of country music that glorifies beer, booze, broads and bar rooms. They have avoided songs of that type," said Jerry Gray, a Washington country music disc jockey.
"It's kind of apple pie and all-American," said Don Reid, 35, the youngest of the four Statlers. When Reid, his brother Harold, Phil Balsley and Lew DeWitt sing about cheatin' hearts, they always end up broken.
Not everyone in Staunton, however, is wild about the group that headlines the city limit sign and the newest boulevard.
"I reckon they're all right if you like country. I like rock 'n roll myself," said 19-year-old Ken Hite, who was more interested Thursday night in the teen-age ritual of cruising through the downtown park than attending the gospel sing several hundred yards away.
Hite, like many of his friends, is unemployed, a casualty, he claims, of the recession that has caused layoffs in the nearby turkey slaughterhouse and razor blade factory.
But this weekend hard times were softened somewhat by an old-fashioned Fourth, shared by tens of thousands of country-loving fans who filled every campground, hotel and motel within 20 miles of Staunton. They more than filled the Little League field where tonight's concert was held on a red-white-blue decorated stage under a billboard-sized American flag.
"The Statlers are the best," said Chris Shade, from Mansfield, Ohio, after waiting with thousands of other fans for the concert gates to open at 6 a.m. today. Armed with nylon lawn chairs, the crowd rushed to the center of the Little League field to stake out choice turf. "We were over too far to the right last year."
Meanwhile, across town at the Woodrow Wilson birthplace, curator Odile Cleveland spent an unhurried day in the recently restored mansion.
"Staunton . . . . is pretty peaceful," sighed Cleveland, who said the mansion is visited by about 24,000 tourists each year, less than half the number of people who heard the Statlers' honey-coated, four-part harmony this one day. But then the townsfolk will tell you, Wilson may have been a great statesman but he couldn't sing a lick.
"I guess you could say Staunton is pretty Statler-oriented," said local civic activist Pam Snyder.