History on parade: How Holiday Caravan began
By Buddy Gettys
For the Salisbury Post
It was 5:18 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 1960. The sun was sinking behind the buildings into the western horizon. At the top of the hill, on the square, thousands of Christmas lights sparkled over throngs of people that lined the curb, seven to eight deep. Suddenly, sounds of sirens cut through the late afternoon chill. The largest holiday parade ever was moving up Main Street. Many of the estimated 100,000 people had waited for hours in a temperature that had fallen 10 degrees below freezing as the sunlight faded.
The Salisbury Post reported the next day, that “the merchants and Jaycees of Salisbury and Spencer had presented central Piedmont North Carolina with a Christmas card” … and a mighty pretty and big one, it was. The four mile long parade with 167 units … had begun in Salisbury, while still passing the Spencer Shops in downtown Spencer. It took a hour and 40 minutes to pass one spot. Children’s faces were cold but smiling, and their eyes were filled with excitement.
There were 25 marching bands scattered through the long procession. Thirty-five beauty queens appeared in the parade, including Miss America and Miss North Carolina, hosted by 17-year-old Ann Stoner who had been crowned Miss Merry Christmas at a pageant sponsored by the Spencer Jaycees four nights earlier. There were plenty of clowns, some in turtlenecks and insulated clothing, braving the cold. TV characters, funny acts like the Keystone Cops and their paddy wagon, the Honeymooners and Bill Bledsoe’s explosive Ford were included as well as more than 50 professional floats. The latter included the Charlotte Coliseum Ice Capades, featuring a miniature ice rink complete with skaters, and a Queen City Trailways bus modeled like an ancient Viking ship with 14 oarsman who “row in time” with the beat of a drum. And there was much more … All together, it was an amazing event, leaving the county in awe.
WSOC-TV in Charlotte claimed that the “Salisbury-Spencer parade was definitely bigger than the Charlotte Carrousel and probably the largest in North Carolina.” Arthur Smith with the Cracker Jacks threw out a figure of “at least 100,000.” Police Chief Dave Shuler had a more conservative number, suggesting 75 to 85,000. Marshalling Chairman Larry Poteat suggested 25,000 to 30,000 were watching in Spencer. Whatever the number, it was a heck of a crowd and traffic jammed the streets for hours after the parade. Poteat pointed out that many people viewed the parade in Spencer and then hustled to Salisbury on back streets to watch a major part of it again.
The Spencer Jaycees were credited with starting the parade in 1952 shortly after being chartered by Salisbury. With only three units, a police car, a fire truck carrying Miss Merry Christmas and the Spencer High School band, the parade grew to 130 units and attracted a crowd of 20,000 in 1959. It was dubbed the Rowan County Christmas Parade and drew entries from across the county.
In December 1959, the Salisbury-Spencer Merchant Association hired Henry C. Bernhardt, a local businessman, to the position of executive vice president. Henry was charged with the responsibility, among other things, for the development of trade promotions and the establishment of a Christmas Parade. By having a stellar background in the Salisbury Jaycees and assisting in the charter of the Spencer Jaycees, Henry was able to start discussions with the leadership in the Spencer club almost immediately. After receiving support from Spencer, he took his idea to the Salisbury Jaycees and ultimately pulled the two chapters and the merchants together to sponsor a two-municipality holiday parade. He had moved quickly. It was a historic move and one that would result is the creation of one of the largest and most recognizable parades in the Carolinas and beyond.
By January, a board of directors, consisting of three members from each of the three organizations, met for the first time. The membership consisted of Buddy Leonard, Norman Lentz and Norman Clark of the Merchants Association, Dr. Fred Chandler, Clyde Miller and Larry Poteat from the Spencer Jaycees and Don Godfrey, Sonny Allen and Newt Cohen from the Salisbury club. The group elected Dr. Chandler to serve as chairman of the board. The board approved and signed an agreement. Clyde Miller commented that “Only Henry could have pulled this together.” The rest is history.
The 1960 parade grabbed the spirit of Rowan County and served as a model for the next 50 years. Some of the same units appear today as they did then. Many of the young men of the 1960s still maintain an interest in what is now the Holiday Caravan, and a significant piece of Rowan County history.
The seed for success was essentially planted on a cold rainy night in February 1952. It was the charter night banquet for the Spencer Jaycees. Thirty-five young men were there to form the club. Also present were 35 or more Salisbury Jaycees, including Henry Bernhardt. There were merchants in the group who were also Jaycees. It is doubtful if anyone thought about a parade but all the elements were there. The United States Jaycees, an organization of young men up to 35 years old, believed that “young men could change the world,” and this group had certainly bought in to the concept.
The presiding state officer closed the meeting by reading a poem by Robert Frost.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” he said “but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
These men ó some now in their 80s ó who grew up as Jaycees have walked those miles and are proud of the promises they have kept. Many times by being young, enthusiastic and driven they didn’t understand that some things were impossible to do … so they just went on out and did them. Salute the Jaycees on Nov. 25 as they present the 50th annual Christmas parade, now the Holiday Caravan