Friday, July 10, 2009

The Fourth of July Parade in Chester

An entry from the 1947 4th of July parade in Chester, NJ. That's my family home and our candy store, luncheonette and soda fountain, in the background, just behind the rising steam.

If you wanted to enter the parade, you just put on some kind of costume, or decorated your bike, or wrapped yourself in the flag, and in you went!
by Charlie Leck

The Fourth of July was a magical holiday. As a kid, I ranked it right up there with Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was actually more than magical. It was massively magical – at least to a little kid.

One year my father and two brothers built a battlefield tank right around a small child’s wagon. It had its big cannon sticking out the front and there were tracks on the side and a big turret into which I could climb and kneel with my head and shoulders and arms sticking out of the tank. And the turret and cannon would turn a few degrees, too, if I would move a small handle first one way and then the other. I wore a soldier’s helmet on my head and waved to the crowds as I passed, with my father pulling me all the way down Main Street from the East end of town to the West. There were small American flags flying from each of the corners of the tank.

On the floor of the wagon, all around me, was a mountain of penny candy that I proudly threw out whenever we were passing children in the crowd that gathered along both sides of the street. I really thought they were cheering for me, but they were cheering for the candy. I was well known as the lucky kid who lived at the candy store and they were certain that I had a full load of candy at my disposal on that day.

I threw larger portions of the candies out from the tank whenever I passed kids I knew or when I saw friends from my class at Chester P.S..

“Wow, there’s Janet... and there’s Lynn and Teddy!”

Aahh, how grand it was to be a hero of the mighty Second World War, if only for an hour. How splendid to ride through the cheering crowds, feeling like the infantrymen who liberated Paris with flowers and kisses thrown before them.

“Viva les American!”

The band up in front was playing some super-patriotic marches and some mighty horses were inching closer to us from behind.

The town postmaster, Mr. Thompson, was standing on the street near the Chester House with my mother and they laughed heartily when they saw me and Mother waved frantically. Peter, Deanne and Toby Barkman were standing on the stairs leading to the porch of their father’s soda fountain. Peter and Deanne, as near-teenagers, looked embarrassed by our little family entry, but Toby waved wildly to me and looked envious of my position in the tank. When I threw candy, he came running down the porch stairs, to the sidewalk, and out to the street, to retrieve something of what I threw. Unsatisfied, he came running up beside me, to inspect my tank, I handed him a great handful portion of wrapped penny candies and he ran back to share them with his brother and sister.

Who came to the parade? Beacoup le monde! It seemed, anyway, that it was all the world – everyone! It was an occasion! Towns all around Chester were showing off their new fire engines, and farmers displayed their fanciest tractors, and the service clubs – the Lions and Rotarians and the Shriners – marched in their fancy caps and carried their proud flags.

The crowds at the Chester 4th of July Parade -- Beaucoup la monde! -- were always incredibly large and very involved! These people,waiting for the parade to begin are immediately next to my home (our store) that would be just to the left (out of picture).

Though my poor father, who had pulled me for nearly two miles, was relieved, it was sad to come to the end of the parade. The cheering ended and there was only the chaos of one parade display after another arriving at the end line of the parade route, trying to figure out where to go to not be in the way of other entries marching down Main Street.

There is nothing like a small town parade – especially a small town parade that doesn’t try to act bigger than it is. Nearly everyone entered a float or a display of some sort. Even Sturgenegger’s Service Station had a grand “old” car from the 20s putt-putting up the street and pretty Ellen, a year younger than I, was riding in the back seat waving gayly to everyone.

There, at the end of the parade, I stood with Carol Rademacher on the steps of her home and we watched together as the floats and entries, which had been trailing behind me, arrived. The IGA grocery store had a big onion walking in the parade, promoting its fresh produce and local, but affiliated, ownership. The town's new ambulance was all shined up and decorated with red, white and blue crepe paper streamers. A big Holstein bull walked along on a lead rope, guided by one of the workers at Pleasant Hill Farms. On the bull's back was a big sign promoting America on Wheels, a roller rink operation with locations all over the East Coast. Clowns from the clown club in Mendham, were scattered throughout the parade. The local coal company showed off its brand new delivery truck and Abe Meyers proudly drove his brand new Cadilac. Even the town library had a float that urged people to come in to get to know the services the library offered. And, there were horses and riders by the dozens -- police horses, jumping horses, roping horses and backyard horses and ponies.

The Bernardsville High School marching band was the hit of the parade and a spectacular drum majorette led the band down the street. The crowd greeted them wildly and the band played loudly and (oh, who cared) not so awfully well.

From where did the rodeo riders come? And were there still left-overs of the Women’s Christian Temperance League?

The Congregational Church had a float that carried a replica of their lovely building up there on Hillside Road. Also on the float, the church's choir, led by Ellen Howell, rode along and sang some of the great military hymns for the Army, Navy and Marines. They were drowned out by the noise of the big farm tractor that followed them. The Presbyterians wanted to try to out-do the Congregationalists, but their reserve wouldn’t allow them to quite let go!

The great climax of the parade displayed a wagon load of turkeys from the Larison Turkey Farm, gobbling all along the route. Larison’s was one of the most famous dining locations in all of central New Jersey, especially known for its family style turkey dinners. People came from far and wide to experience the thrill of eating there. What a wonderous float – there were the Pilgrims and there were the live turkeys, gobbling, gobbling, gobbling, from the beginning of the parade route to where it ended in front of the grand turkey farm itself.

Larison's Turkey Farm was packed with diners on weekends, especially on Sundays for the family style turkey dinner.

The parade was only the beginning of the day’s festivities, but it was also the most important part of the celebration.

Hot dogs and hamburgers were grilling all over town. Early fresh apples were ready for tasting and so were mountains of cold watermelon. The lettuce was fantastic. Early tomatoes and onions were sliced, ready to be added as toppings for the hamburgers. My parents had a few too many gin and tonics and the laughter and cheering was loud and endless.

The fireworks, laid out professionally, on the parkland just a block west of our store, began to boom, boom, boom. As the sun settled in the west and a darkness surrounded the little town, the big boomers exploded in the sky.

“Oooh! Aaah!”

The crowds screamed with each release of another display. It grew darker and darker and the sky showered down all its magnificent colors and exploding lights. Children ran around on the grass, waving bright, spitting sparklers. Somewhere, a band was playing as the sky continued to explode with the rockets' red glare.

It had been an exhausting day and my eye-lids were laden with heaviness. I laid there in my bed that looked out over Main Street and I heard the screams and cries of celebration and I heard the boom, boom, booming of small fireworks from first this yard and then another. I fell into a peaceful, wonderful and ecstatic sleep.

And, I awoke on the 5th of July. It was astonishingly quiet. Even the birds remained resting and silent. The sun was just beginning to sprinkle the tops of the trees. Nothing moved out on the street. Life only slowly returned to normal.

This photograph from a parade (circa 1947) is of Lee Case waiting to enter the parade on this Farmall tractor that is pulling a float. [Photo by Ann Apgar and courtesty the Chester Historical Society]

Chester P. Apgar Hardware, in the 1949 parade, showing off its brand new Centennial Building. My brother, John, right after his marriage lived in a second floor apartment in this building. [Photo by Clara Ammerman and courtesy the Chester Historical Society]

1 comment:

  1. I was very happy to read your blogg on the fourth of July parade. I was somewhat of a Johnny come lately to the Chester Community. My family moved there in 1954, and we lived in Chester Township, not Chester Borough, but I have vague memories of it all.
    Nothing like a small town celebration.

    Dotty Dey