I Love a Parade!
North Adams autumn tradition lines ’em up on Main Street
The Fall Foliage Parade takes a 2.5-mile route that goes through North Adams via Main Street. More than 2,500 spectators are expected.
Photo by Ben Lamb
Every year since 1955, the Fall Foliage Parade has marched its way through North Adams, a bonus to leaf peepers strolling the Mohawk Trail on the right day. In the 21st century, the parade is a pure slice of Americana that shows no sign of wandering off into the wilderness and some indication that it is, in fact, rekindling its glory days.
This year’s parade, on September 30, features two canine grand marshals, Seymour and Curby, to celebrate the Year of the Dog theme, along with the Brew N Chew, featuring food, beer, and a hot-dog eating contest at Jack’s Hot Dogs.
At 1 p.m., the parade starts Ocean State Job Lots and concludes at the North Adams Housing Authority on Ashland Street after traveling through downtown North Adams via Main Street. Floats are expected to include Mountain One’s special “Mountain 101 Dalmations” as well as creative endeavors by the Greylock School and First Baptist Church. Typically, the parade sees anywhere from 80 to 120 participants along the 2.5-mile route. A crowd of 2,500 onlookers is expected, but in recent years, numbers have swelled to double that size.
“It’s a huge draw for people out of town who come to see the foliage and like to hit the time when the parade is here as well,” says organizer Danielle Pellerin. “A lot of cities aren’t doing them as much anymore, but ours is still so popular.”
For six years, Pellerin has overseen the planning process with the parade committee and with 1Berkshire acting as host. Sixty-three years ago, the parade was launched by the now-defunct North Adams Chamber of Commerce, but its roots go back to 1947 when the chamber created a drum-and-bugle-corps competition accompanied by a small street parade.
The following year, there was a parade featuring 50 trucks from a local dealer. In 1949, the 50th anniversary of the Elks Lodge inspired a parade highlighting a marching band. In 1950, the chamber raised $1,000 to put toward parade floats. By 1955, the Fall Foliage Festival officially existed, featuring a fashion show and festival queen along with the parade. The next year, Harry Orr, who had a background in organizing circus events and became known as “Mr. Fall Foliage Festival,” took over organizing and building it into a professional spectacle. Orr died in 1965.
Just how far the parade had evolved was captured in an October 1, 1963, newspaper article in the North Adams Transcript describing a Hayden Oil and Supply Company’s float featuring children dressed as 12 different nationalities. Other floats that year included the Rotary Club’s covered wagon, populated by kids and pulled by oxen, a gentleman and his St. Bernard, the Freeman Parents’ Group pink, blue, and white steamboat featuring a smokestack, the Petersburg Pass’s float featuring kids having a summer picnic and riding a winter ski lift. There were also go-karts, a National Guard tank, and numerous marching bands.
At some point, the fashion show morphed into a beauty contest, and one of those featured in the post-rainstorm parade was Fall Festival Queen Susan Brower and, as the Transcript put it, “her mink-clad court riding atop an elaborate winged chair constructed by the Massachusetts Electric Company.”
“We had a float that Sprague put in one year that was mechanical, like a trolley from New Orleans,” remembers Jack Brooks, a longtime and current parade committee member. “They actually had a jazz band and a wheel going on it and people singing. The parade had a trail of Boy Scouts and Indians attacking. Back then, Main Street was absolutely mobbed. At one time there were probably 15, 18, 20,000 people here for that parade.”
Paul W. Marino, local historian and program director at NBCTC, has been in the parade three times—twice in grand-marshal capacity, but the first time in 1973. “We made a model of a tower mounted on the front of a Gordon and Sutton truck,” he says. “It was built up over the cab. I was in there with an angle iron, which was the bell. So, I was ringing the bell.”
Times have changed and so have economics. The parade began to shrink in the late ’80s and now receives half the funding it did back then. But it survives with local business support, including MASS MoCA, and extra funding from individual donations as little as $5. Its success is evident from the enthusiasm of the spectators, generations of North Adams residents coming together, some even planning family reunions for Fall Foliage weekend.
“The parade is still very large and still exciting,” Pellerin says. “If you drive around the parade route the night before, you see people who put their chairs up and park their trucks and claim their spot, t even bringing a grill. It’s amazing to see.”