Folks gather around to watch the deteriorating structure of the 2019 New Years Eve Bonfire on Tuesday evening, December 31, 2019, in Ninigret Park, Charlestown, RI. | Jackie Turner, Special to The Sun.

Folks gather to watch last year’s New Year’s Eve bonfire at Ninigret Park in Charlestown. The 2020 edition of the community tradition has been canceled because of the coronavirus. | Jackie Turner, Special to The Sun

CHARLESTOWN — The latest community tradition to fall victim to the coronavirus is the annual New Year's Eve bonfire at Ninigret park. Frank Glista, who has been building the bonfire for 13 years, said that after speaking with town officials, it was agreed that the bonfire would not take place this year.

“The governor has a 250 outside attendance right now, and last year, we probably would be close to 3,000, if not over,” he said. “There’s no way that you’re going to serve hot chocolate and doughnuts and have people keep social distancing. You can’t even get six feet away from parking the cars. I mean, the cars are right on top of each other, so there was just no way it was going to happen.”

Parks and Recreation Director Vicky Hilton said she regretted having to cancel the popular event but she understood why it couldn’t take place this year.

“Regretfully, COVID-19 has made us cancel one of Charlestown Parks and Recreation Department’s most popular yearly events,” she said. “Although this event is a tradition, both Frank Glista, aka ‘Frankie Pallets,’ and I agree that with winter comes much uncertainty of the virus coming back, and due to the extremely large number of people that attend the event, the ability to social distance doesn’t seem viable. The department and Frank wish the public to stay as healthy as they possibly can ushering in the new year. Hopefully 2021 will be more conducive to large events.”

Glista said he had announced the cancellation early out of fairness to the event’s major donor, Arnold Lumber, which collects and donates the pallets — about 400 last year.

“I have to let Arnold Lumber know way in advance, because they have to collect all the pallets from the different yards that they own, and they get them stacked and they do a great job for me," he said. "But I didn’t want to let them go to the last minute and then say, ‘Oh, by the way, I need 500 pallets.’ I wanted to give everybody kind of a heads-up.”

Glista had planned to do this year’s bonfire and one more final bonfire in 2021 before retiring from the event.

“I would still do two more if my health [is good] and this pandemic would cease to exist where we could have outdoor events,” he said. “Look what’s happened in Charlestown — the Seafood Festival, Rhythm and Roots, the Memorial Day parade. It’s unbelievable.”

Each bonfire is a creative endeavor that takes Glista a couple of months to complete, and every one has been different. Some, he said, he remembers well.

“There are a few that I really liked the way the design turned out, and I can’t tell what years they were, but the design, to me, just looked perfect,” he said. 

One of Glista’s favorite bonfires was many years ago when his wife, Paula Anderson, had her grandchildren visiting.

“It was earlier on,” he said. “It was probably, maybe, the third or fourth year. We had snow and Paula had her grandchildren there and I remember all the kids were making snowballs and they were throwing them at the fire to put it out, and it wasn’t just them, it was all the kids. … The whole picture in my mind, what a sweet thing it was.”

Town Council President Virginia Lee said she understood why the bonfire would not be lighting up Ninigret Park this year.

“Although many families will miss the bonfire that burns out the end of the year, it is a prudent decision to postpone it, given the risk to public health,” she said. “Hats off to the Parks and Recreation Department and to Frank Glista for making it a treasured tradition.”

Glista said one of the things that had kept him motivated over the years was the encouragement he received from the public.

“When I’m building it, I have people stop by and thank me for it, and it’s really hard to walk away when people do that,” he said. “I don’t need the certificates. I don’t need those kinds of accolades, but when somebody takes the time to stop and say, ‘We’ve come a couple of years and we really appreciate you doing this for the town,’ that’s really nice. It means a lot.”

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