Staging the huge Vergennes Memorial Day parade takes military precision
VERGENNES — The Vergennes Memorial Day Parade, a production of American Legion Post 14, is generally acknowledged as Vermont’s largest.
But according to Post 14 Service Officer and longtime parade organizer Henry Broughton, the parade got off to a humble start: It ran along just a short stretch of Main Street.
“It went from the memorial service down to the bridge,” said Broughton, now 85. “We only had two bands. We had a little band from the high school, and the Weeks School had a pretty good-sized band.”
And according to Broughton and Post 14 Commander Ralph Wenzel, exactly when the parade started is a little fuzzy, even if the motive was crystal clear.
“The veterans coming back from service joined the Legion, and to pay their respects for their comrades they decided to celebrate and honor them with a parade,” said Wenzel. “I remember Martin Casey saying, and he’s passed away now, that he couldn’t remember, and he was a 60-year member. It was right after the war, but the parade didn’t get started until ’48, or maybe ’47. But, like Henry said, it started small with just a bunch of guys, and then it just mushroomed.”
Broughton said he believed prominent Vergennes citizen Sam Fishman (the city pool is named after him) delivered the first keynote address, and that Fishman’s brother-in-law Ben Gould was next in the lineup.
Then the politicians got involved, and the parade started growing a reputation — and simply growing.
“From then on we started getting senators and representatives from Washington and all that,” Broughton said. “It took three or four years, and next thing you know we started getting big.”
Now the route begins at Vergennes Union High School and winds through city streets before ending at the City Green, and given the size of the Little City the parade is like a Slinky on a stairway: At one point both ends are still while only the middle moves.
“It’s about a two-mile parade route, and the parade procession is longer than the parade route, believe it or not. Usually the chief of police leads the procession, and is then followed by the color guard. The color guard is waiting at the light while the parade is going by still,” said Wenzel, 65, who was elected post commander a year ago. “It’s going to get to the point where we’re going to have to make the parade route longer to accommodate everybody.”
At this point, of course, Post 14 has a solid template for paying for and organizing the annual parade. Member dues, proceeds from renting out its Armory Lane banquet room, and beverage and snack sales at the clubhouse take care of funding.
“We shoulder it all,” Wenzel said. “We have a downstairs banquet hall, all the revenue that comes in. We have a fantastic Finance Officer (Wally Howard). He keeps us straight. He’s right on the ball.”
The post’s parade committee, about nine people consisting of post officers and the leaders of the Post 14’s Sons of the American Legion and Ladies’ Auxiliary groups, meets in February each year to start organizing that spring’s parade.
“We get everything set up so there’s no inconvenience (for paradegoers) We’ve got bathrooms open. We’ve got porta-potties,” Wenzel said. “We line up our guest speakers, our parade marshal. Different people on the parade committee take over different aspects of the parade so that at the end we all come together.”
Broughton, for example, lines up the marshal and guest speakers for the post-parade ceremony and writes press releases for the event, while Wenzel handles promoting the parade, ordering the food and tent, obtaining portable toilets, rounding up the Sunday volunteers, organizing the color guard, and making “sure the different people are contacted to bring what they’ve got to bring.”
Wenzel guessed up to 60 people help out on game day.
“It takes a lot of people behind the scenes that don’t get recognition,” he said. “It’s a real group effort. It’s a real Post effort that puts it on.”
ALL IN ORDER
The Vergennes police chief always leads the parade itself, followed by the Legion Color Guard and Veterans of Foreign Wars members. Fire departments — including those from Ferrisburgh, Addison, New Haven, Weybridge, Monkton, Cornwall and Weybridge — join the city department in bringing up the rear.
Wenzel said organizers keep the bands “dispersed throughout the parade,” and sprinkle in Boy Scouts, Little Leaguers, Civil War re-enactors, politicians, antique tractors, Shriners and pageant winners in between.
The lineup is set in advance to allow the announcer at the city green viewing stand to announce it accurately.
“She doesn’t have to look to see who it is. She knows who it is,” Wenzel said.
The tried-and-true format has not changed radically over the years.
“We use the same format from the previous parades,” Wenzel said. “We might tweak it a little bit, but not much, because it works.”
But it’s still a challenge, more for a commander running his first parade than a 50-year veteran.
“There’s quite a lot to remember of what’s got to be done,” Wenzel said.
“I don’t have a problem with that,” Broughton said. “Everything’s been good.”
“Henry’s been doing it for 50 years. It’s not a challenge to him. To me, it’s my first year,” Wenzel said. “I’m trying to pick stuff up.”
In fact, Wenzel said Broughton’s service on the parade is just the tip of the iceberg. The Legion offered him the honor of being its Grand Marshal this year, but, typically, he declined. Instead, another worthy candidate was chosen, World War II veteran Ron Hadley (click here to read more).
But Wenzel said Broughton deserves to be recognized, a comment that led to a debate.
“He’s held every office in this post. He’s been on the state Finance Board for the Department of Vermont. And he’s been instrumental in bringing this Post from the old home here. And as a Finance Officer the Post (building) was paid off in five years,” Wenzel said. “Henry and Lucille, Henry’s wife, would put on the banquets downstairs, raise money for the Post. He’s done it all. The Post owes him a lot of gratitude for what he’s done in the past to bring it to where it is. It (the parade) is just one example. Fantastic.”
“I don’t need to take any credit,” Broughton said.
“You’re too modest, Henry,” Wenzel said.
“Maybe I’m modest, but no, I don’t have to take any credit,” Broughton said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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