Q: When Was Wheeling’s First Christmas Parade?
We thought this question, posed on Archiving Wheeling’s Facebook page, would be a difficult one to answer. But, thanks to a series of historic parade photographs from the Eddie Martin Collection at the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston Archives, the mystery is solved.
The parade Martin photographed took place on Friday, November 22, 1940, before an estimated crowd of 100,000 people lined up along Main and Market.
But, although it had to be among the quirkiest, the 1940 version was, by no means, Wheeling’s first parade.
Wheeling, a Parade-Crazy Town
As the home to numerous fraternal and patriotic organizations, clubs, and groups from the early German singing societies to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Knights of Pythias, and many others, Wheeling has always been a hard-parading town. Elaborate, decorative, ostentatious and often geographically extensive (one was calculated at more than six miles!) parades were organized to celebrate almost every occasion, from Christmas and other holidays, to German singing festivals, patriotism, “Americanism,” anniversaries, grand openings, etc. In fact, a review of early newspaper accounts confirms that Wheelingites required very little excuse to stage a big, fat, loud parade at the drop of a bowler hat.
Q: When Was Wheeling’s First Christmas Parade?
But newspaper accounts of the 1940 parade make it clear that the modern, annual, “Wheeling Christmas parade,” as we know it, was first held in 1930, the 1940 version being the “tenth annual parade” organized by the Ohio Valley Board of Trade.
Q: But Why Was It Quirky?
Weather for the 1940 parade seems familiar to those of us experiencing “winter,” 75 years hence: “With spring-like weather prevailing,” The Intelligencer reported, “many of the sightseers who lined the sidewalks and hung out windows, were in their [shirt] sleeves.”
According to the newspaper, the parade was marked by many “innovations,” including the first ever appearance in Wheeling of “giant inflated balloon characters…supplied by Jean Gross, famous theatrical producer, who witnessed the parade and characterized it as, ‘one of the finest , if not the finest parade I’ve ever seen.'” Gross claimed the Wheeling parade compared favorably to those held in New York, Boston, and Detroit.
A (Part 1): Giant, Inexplicable Balloons…
Other highlights of the 1940 Wheeling parade included a Mother Goose fairy tale float, six white Arabian horses, and more than 30 high school bands, including the “hit of the parade,” from Scio, whose “rhythmic playing, waltzing, and marching” elicited continuous applause.
A (Part 2): A Reindeer-Less Santa Claus!
Apparently inspired by all the innovation and modernization, Santa ditched his flying reindeer in favor of a faster light pursuit plane dubbed the “Spirit of Christmas,” disappointing the traditional crowd while delighting the younger generation.
The parade started at 11 am at 26th Street, with businessman John V. Colvig as Grand Marshal. A troop of Boy Scouts with American flags followed the drum corps for American Legion Post No. 1 , featuring veterans of the First World War. And, with much of the world embroiled in yet another war that the United States was still a year away from joining, the Red Cross (and its nurses) was prominent among the marchers, while children held white doves on an “America at Peace float.” The Wheeling Cycle Club, “all awheel,” peddled by with two high-wheelers and a tandem. Oglebay Park’s float depicting a picnic site was followed by a “score of mummers” — elaborately costumed pantomimes (aka, scary clowns).
John Dieckmann and Sons (florists) sponsored a float depicting Cinderella with her glass slipper, behind which employees of the Martins Ferry works of the Wheeling Steel Corporation marched.
Isaly’s float with the famous Cow jumping over the Moon, was followed by a 60-foot “dinosaur,” a giant fish, Felix the Cat, Donald Duck, the aforementioned airplane-flying Claus, and a gigantic horned dragon, with various high school bands and more mummers interspersed.
The Cooey-Bentz float featured a “high tank, saluting the American home with a barrage of balloons.”
Additional balloon characters included “funny big heads,” a caterpillar, monkey, elephant, kangaroo, a musical pig, an alligator, and a three-headed serpent, of course. All of the city high schools, including Linsly, Wheeling, Wheeling Central, Triadelphia, Warwood, and Lincoln, participated.
While the Wheeling Fire Department, Board of Trade float, and a police car brought “Wheeling’s biggest parade” to an end, the annual Wheeling Christmas Parade tradition was really just beginning.
Please enjoy these additional photos featuring
Wheeling Parades of Christmas Past and Present.
Happy Holidays from Archiving Wheeling!
Wheeling Christmas Parade, 1958.
Wheeling Christmas Parade, 2013.
Many thanks to our Heritage Partner, Jon-Erik Gilot, Archivist for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, for the use of the photos from the fabulous Eddie Martin Collection.