141 Years of Tradition

Published 11:10 pm Saturday, May 23, 2009

More than a dozen floats, more than a half a dozen bands and more than two hours of veterans, military organizations and flag-waving patriotism.

In a little more than 24 hours, the 141st edition of the Ironton-Lawrence County Memorial Day Parade will make history — or at least continue it — for Ironton and all of Lawrence County.

When and where

The parade will begin at 10 a.m.

The parade route begins at Sixth and Center streets, moves southward, turns onto Third Street and continues toward Quincy Street. After a left turn on Quincy, the parade will continue to Sixth Street and back to Center Street.

An estimated 2,000-plus people will actually march in the parade. Another 15,000 to 25,000 will stand or sit along the parade route.

Other cities host a Christmas parade and draw a big crowd. For others, it is St. Patrick’s Day or the Fourth of July. For Ironton, Memorial Day and its age-old parade is the high point of the year. Family members who have moved away come back to town for this one weekend and everyone comes to the parade.

Begun in 1868, the parade is the nation’s oldest continuous Memorial Day Parade and this year, it gets its very own street banner. On Friday, a banner was placed at Fourth and Center streets in honor of the parade.

It shows crossed flags on a blue and white background.

The new banner was paid for by the Friends of Ironton.

Months in the making

It may look like an effortless, seamless movement of people but the parade is actually the work of more than two dozen working mostly behind the scenes who meet regularly from January through May to plot logistics, sort through parade entries and make any number of decisions that will affect what people see both on Memorial Day and on the two events leading up to it, Navy Night and the Woodland Cemetery Service.

“It’s been a lot of work for the committee but we love it on the day of the parade to see all the people come together, to see the community come together,” parade committee member Lou Pyles said.

A small army of volunteers aid the parade committee one way or another before, during or after the parade.

A dozen parade committee members, cemetery staff and volunteers put 4,000 flags on the graves of veterans at Woodland Cemetery on Saturday. Volunteers with the local amateur radio “ham operators” groups will provide communications between the 12 divisions, area emergency services and the parade leaders on the day of the parade.

Parade preparations require the cooperation of city workers who spend weeks cleaning catch basins, painting curbs, picking up trash, hanging banners and flags and putting some spit and polish on a city that sees its largest influx of people Memorial Day weekend.

“They’ve done a lot for us,” Parade Grand Marshall Arthur Pierson said. “They worked well with us and we appreciate it.”

Mayor Rich Blankenship agreed.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the city employees,” he said. “They’ve done a great job.”

The Memorial Day preparations are part of a larger effort Blankenship said the city is making to be more attractive, show its best side. It’s hard work, but Blankenship said the outcome is well worth all the work.

“I believe our city is turning around and there is a positive attitude out there instead of all the negative,” he said. “People are taking pride in our city.”

Blankenship pointed out the sprucing up is not just a city thing but an individual one as well: he pointed to the homes throughout Ironton that are tidied up and decked out for the weekend in patriotic colors.

Military presence

The first two divisions of the parade (there are 12 of them) are devoted to those who have served or are serving in the nation’s armed forces.

The first division includes the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Veterans of Foreign Wars, AmVets and the Disabled American Veterans.

The second division includes a naval reserve unit, a delegation from the United States Marine Corps from Charleston, W.Va., representation from the National Guard and memorials to individual soldiers.

“It seems like we’re getting younger military these days,” Pyles said.

More participation

The procession may be a bit longer this year thanks to newcomers who have heard about the parade and want to join this year in the salute to veterans.

“We have a lot of floats this year and this is unusual,” Pyles said. “I think we probably have 15 or 16. Some years we’ve had only 5.”

Why so many? Pyles said she thinks patriotism is still running high in the community and in the country.

More churches are involved this year as well, Pyles said.

And while the official deadline for submitting that entry form was a couple of weeks ago, people are still lining up to be part of the parade and, if previous years are any indication, will continue to do so until 10 a.m. Monday. Last-minute entrants are welcomed and directed to the 10th division.

“I had people calling me this morning,” Pierson said Friday.

Nine young ladies from Salt Rock, W.Va., will make their debut in the parade this year. They are members of Girl Scout troops 2523 and 2825.

“We’re really trying to teach alot about patriotism and the importance of family, God and country,” Girl Scout leader Stephanie McCoy said. “And this is the longest running Memorial Day Parade. We want them to understand the sacrifices veterans have made.”

Pyles said one of the hardest tasks is to get bands — the committee likes to have at least one band in each of the parade’s 12 divisions.

But at the end of the school year, instruments are put away with the uniforms and it’s hard to inspire band directors to bring students to the parade.

Big event

Memorial Day is one the most lavishly celebrated holidays in Lawrence County, if not the most.

County commissioners noted the importance of the parade in their Thursday meeting. Commissioners encouraged area residents to show their love for flag and country and the appreciation for veterans by showing up in person for the parade.

“I think it is something we all should do,” Commissioner Doug Malone said. “And I think when we see a veteran or a person who is in the military now, walk up and shake their hand and tell them thank you for what you’ve done for our country.”

“It’s a great parade,” fellow Commissioner Les Boggs said. “Sometimes I think people take the parade for granted and don’t show up.”

Part of the pomp and circumstance

Just about every year since 1971, Charlie Cook, of Ironton, has stood on the sidelines and watched the parade.

“I’m a real patriotic person and I love our country and our flag,” Cook explained. “I think celebrating Memorial Day, especially the guys who have defended our country over the years, is something we need to do and need to continue to do.”

When his son, John, was in the Rock Hill High School Marching Band, Cook, a proud dad, had an extra reason to come to the parade.

This year, Cook has another reason to stand proudly on the sidelines. Cook is now the parade cane maker. Each year the grand marshal receives a hand-carved cane as a token of the parade committee’s appreciation for a year of hard work. Cook began making the cane this year after the former cane maker and parade committee member Bill Ellis died.

This year when Pierson leads the parade he will have a curly willow cane adorned with an eagle’s head and a draped American flag. The parade theme, “Freedom Forever in the U.S.A,” is carved on one of the flag’s stripes.

“I’m happy to be a part of it,” Cook said. “It makes me feel proud to participate.”

On TV

For those who can’t attend the parade or who want to watch it afterward or record it, the parade will be televised at 7 p.m. Monday, at 8 p.m. Tuesday, at 6 p.m. Friday, noon Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday on OKTV (channel 25 on the Time Warner Cable).

Students in Ohio University Southern’s electronic media program will produce the broadcast. Tri-State Area radio personality J.B. Miller and university professor Terry Hapney will host the broadcast.

Miller is a native of Ironton and can remember either watching the parade or participating in it since he was a kid.

He said he is pleased to be involved in this event for the 11th year in a row.

“It’s a huge Ironton tradition and I know what it stands for. Everyone knows what it stands for,” Miller said.