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History of American Celebration on Parade

Parades are among the oldest forms of organized celebrations.  They are said to date back to 3000 BC as religious observances.  Romans held civil parades called triumphs to celebrate special occasions.  American celebrations range from observances of important historical events, such as July 4th, to religious and ethnic holidays to secular and sports events.  From community and high school homecoming parades to grand, national events, Americans love to celebrate.

American Celebration on Parade BuildingThe idea for American Celebration on Parade, which opened in July, 2000, began nearly 30 years earlier.  Earl Hargrove, owner of Shenandoah Caverns, had long produced floats for prestigious parades throughout the nation and served as a principal contractor for every presidential inaugural since Harry Truman’s in 1949.  Mr. Hargrove had purchased many floats that had appeared in the Rose Parade over the years and adapted them for use in other parades. He wanted to create a revolving exhibition of famous parade floats the public would recognize from the Rose Parade, Presidential Inaugurals, Thanksgiving parades, and many others.

Everything in the exhibit has a story, some dating back more than 50 years, others nearly new.  Floral decorations on one float graced President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Balls in 1961 while other exhibits appeared as recently as the January 2001 Inaugural Parade.  The floats and life-sized props come from an extensive collection and inventory that are still used in special events, trade shows, and parades produced by Hargrove, Inc. 

Inaugural Exhibit

The Presidential inaugural exhibit at American Celebration on Parade includes unusual memorabilia ranging from inaugural license plates, invitations, tickets, and programs to banners and items used in VIP boxes at the Inaugural Balls. Visitors learn from the many historical photographs of past inaugural events and an interactive component that tests their Inaugural knowledge based on information in the exhibit and on the attraction’s web site.

The exhibit also includes a hand-drawn sketch of a VIP box from President Nixon’s Inaugural Ball that can also be seen in a ball photograph. A sketch of a float from the 1993 Inaugural parade depicts a float that is part of the permanent exhibition at American Celebration on Parade. “We thought it would be fun for visitors to see the concept to reality transformation,” said General Manager Joe Proctor.

Most of the material to be exhibited comes from the collection of Earl C. Hargrove, owner of Shenandoah Caverns and American Celebration on Parade. Mr. Hargrove’s Maryland company has provided services to every Presidential Inaugural since 1949. The many gold eagles featured in the exhibit have been used at a variety of inaugural events dating back to 1969. A jacket used by staff at the 1989 bicentennial celebration of George Washington’s first inaugural in New York City is also on display.

Visitors experience the pageantry of the Presidency throughout American Celebration on Parade because the 40,000-square-foot exhibition is home to six parade floats that are veterans of Presidential Inaugurals and décor elements from Inaugural Balls dating back as far as John F. Kennedy.

Presidential Inaugurals

Freedom Hall at American Celebration on parade is our tribute to American history and democracy.  Our tradition of Presidential Inaugurals goes back to George Washington and represents the peaceful transfer of power from one individual to another.  The founders of our nation sought a simple ceremony instead of the elaborate ceremonies associated with a royal coronation. George Washington’s inaugural was scheduled for March 4, 1789, but he didn't actually take the oath of office in New York City until April 30th because of unusually bad weather that made travel especially difficult. He delivered an inaugural address, which was reprinted and widely distributed.  Over time, other traditions became attached to the inaugural ceremony.

George Washington

George Washington’s second inaugural took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as did that of the second president, John Adams.  Adams began the tradition of having the oath of office administered by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.  

The nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, was the first to take his oath of office in Washington, DC. For his second inaugural in 1805, Mr. Jefferson walked from Mrs. Conrad’s boarding house to the capitol to take his oath.  He rode a horse to the President’s Mansion, accompanied by a spontaneous parade and military music.

Thomas Jefferson
James Madison

James Madison had the distinction of being the first president whose inauguration clothes were made entirely in the United States.  He was honored with the first Inaugural ball, held at Long’s Hotel.  Although President Madison and some guests found the conditions uncomfortable, balls soon became fixtures on the inaugural scene.

America’s earliest presidents continued to set the Inaugural traditions followed to this day.  Some came about by accident.  James Monroe’s inauguration was held outdoors because the House of Representatives and the Senate had an argument over the distribution of tickets for seats inside the capitol.

James Monroe’s
Andrew Jackson

Among the best known inaugurations was that of Andrew Jackson, known as the president of the people.  Following his inauguration in 1829, President Jackson opened the White House for a public reception.  Although this tradition actually began with Thomas Jefferson, it is said that 20,000 people jammed the Jackson White House.  They were literally falling out of the windows and caused thousands of dollars in damage.  The public receptions continued for much of the 1800s, however, the Inaugural parade eventually replaced the reception as the primary public event.

William Henry Harrison was 68 years old when he took the oath of office on March 4, 1841.  The first organized Inaugural Parade took place after his inauguration.  He refused to wear a hat and coat despite the cold, stormy weather as he rode on horseback to the capitol.  His inaugural address took one hour and 45 minutes to deliver – the longest on record.  He caught a terrible cold and died on April 4, 1841, exactly one month after his inauguration.  President Harrison’s death was also a test for the young nation because he was the first president to die in office.

William Henry Harrison
John Tyler

Vice-President John Tyler assumed the presidency in a peaceful transition.

One of the coldest inaugurations was Ulysses S. Grant’s second inaugural on March 4, 1873.  A near blizzard and zero degree temperatures ruined the inaugural parade.  The place where the inaugural ball was held was so cold that guests wore their coats while dancing and the champagne froze. 

Ulysses S. Grant’s
Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural on January 20, 1985 was also nearly ruined by cold weather.  The inaugural parade was cancelled.  Instead President and Mrs. Reagan and Vice-President and Mrs. Bush greeted the thousands of  people who came to Washington, DC to participate in the parade inside a sports arena just outside the city.  The huge American Flag float used as a backdrop and stage for that event can be seen at the American Celebration on Parade exhibit.  The Flag float has appeared in two Inaugural parades since then and in many other celebrations and special events.

Woodrow Wilson’s first Inaugural Parade, in 1913, was the largest.  It included 40,000 participants.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second inauguration, January 20, 1937, was the first to be held in January instead of March.  The January date has been used since then.  President Lyndon Johnson placed the current limit of 15,000 participants on the Inaugural Parade in 1965.  

Woodrow Wilson

Every presidential inauguration adds something unique to our American heritage.  The peaceful transition of authority and power symbolized by the inauguration of a President of the United States is the greatest evidence of our American democracy in action.

Inaugural Firsts

  • President Lyndon Johnson was the first to be sworn in by a woman.  Sarah Tilghman Hughes, a federal judge in Texas, administered the oath after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963.  President Johnson was also the first to take the oath while his wife held the Bible.
  • The March 4, 1845 inauguration of President James K. Polk was the first to be reported to the nation by telegraph.
  • President Franklin Pierce was the first to take advantage of a constitutional provision to use the word “affirm” instead of “swear” in his inauguration ceremony March 4, 1853.
  • On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson became the first president to be inaugurated in Washington, DC.
  • The first inaugural to be photographed was that of James Buchanan in 1857.
  • The first time motion pictures were taken of an inaugural address was in 1897 during the inauguration of William McKinley.
  • President Warren Harding, in 1921, was the first president whose inaugural was amplified by loudspeakers. Until then, few of the guests could actually hear the oath and inaugural address.
  • President Calvin Coolidge, in 1925, was the first president whose inaugural was broadcast on radio.
  • President Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural, in 1913, was the first to appear in theater news-reels.
  • President John Adams was the first to have the oath of office administered by the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.
  • The first inaugural ball held in Washington DC was President James Madison’s.  It was held at Long’s Hotel on Capitol Hill.
Check out the links below for more information about other parades. 

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