Wineka column: Salisbury merchants, Jaycees put together a parade for the ages in 1960
It was so cold Miss America caught pneumonia. Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks couldn’t play their instruments because of the raw, foot-numbing temperature, which dipped toward 17 degrees.
But a crowd estimated at close to 100,000 people hung out of windows along Main Street or perched on top of store canopies, porches, balconies, step ladders, garbage containers, stools and shoulders to catch a glimpse of the first Spencer-Salisbury holiday parade 50 years ago.
That original edition was called the Rowan Christmas Parade. By 1963 it would be renamed the Holiday Caravan ó still an amazing annual production living up to its reputation as the “Carolinas’ Loveliest and Liveliest” parade.
Larry Poteat, marshalling chairman for the first Spencer-Salisbury parade, recalls that the large attendance in the two towns could have been even bigger.
“It was terribly cold that day,” says Poteat, who now lives in Roanoke, Va. “We think that kept the crowds down.”
Nonetheless, the Salisbury Post headline the day after the Nov. 30, 1960, parade said, “Huge Throng Views Brilliant Christmas Parade.”
“Never before has a local parade attracted so many name personalities or such high quality floats,” the newspaper gushed.
The original Holiday Caravan covered 48 blocks and featured 21 beauty queens, 53 floats and acts such as Joey the Clown, Bill Bledsoe and his Exploding Ford and Smiley and his Calliope.
The scores of high school and college marching entries included the N.C. State University band and drum and bugle corps and the Wake Forest University band. It took 26 buses to transport all the bands from Spencer to Salisbury.
Cowboy Fred Kirby impressed the crowd with his horse and six-shooter.
W.F. Bailey of the highway patrol drove at the head of the parade, followed by grand marshal and town character Norman Ingle.
Frustrated that he doesn’t have the official lineup from that first parade, Henry Bernhardt thinks it had 156 entries, but he can’t be sure.
“We were trying to make that parade as big as we could,” says Bernhardt, who played the lead role in bringing it all together.
The Salisbury-Spencer Merchants Association hired Bernhardt in late 1959 as its executive vice president. The merchants group had three goals: making it a countywide organization, rebuilding its credit bureau and developing a trade promotion program headlined by “a fine parade.”
Bernhardt resigned as president and general manager of his family’s Salisbury Hardware to take the position. By Jan. 2, 1960, he was working on the parade, and he immediately sought out his friends with the Spencer Jaycees.
A Jaycee himself, Bernhardt had been the Salisbury president, state vice president and a national director.
“The Jaycees really and truly turned my life around,” he says. Belk-Harry Manager Tony Alley, who was part of the merchants’ search committee, told Bernhardt that to be successful in his new job “just keep doing what you did with the Jaycees.”
The Spencer Jaycees had seen some growing success with their own “Rowan County Christmas Parade.” It started in 1952 as a way to show off the town’s Christmas lights and soon became the Spencer Jaycees’ top community project, complete with a beauty pageant and professional floats.
Bernhardt met with Spencer Jaycees Poteat (the president) and Clyde Miller, among others, and the organization immediately bought into a partnership with the merchants association and Salisbury Jaycees to organize the two-town holiday parade.
A board of directors was formed, with representatives from each of the three organizations. The organizers started out meeting about once a month, then twice. After September, it was four and five times a week.
Engineers at Isenhour Brick and Tile Co. used their connections to line up the N.C. State band and drum and bugle corps. Local attorneys who were graduates of Wake Forest brought in the Demon Deacons unit.
Bernhardt relied on his strong connections as a beauty pageant judge ó he had judged pageants in several states by then ó to draw in beauty queens for the parade.
“Once we got Miss America, that made a difference,” he says.
Norman Clark locked in bands from across the Piedmont. Salisbury Post Advertising Director Palmer Laughridge managed to obtain free ads about the parade in newspapers throughout the region as a way of encouraging those readers to support the appearance of their bands in the parade.
“Fortunately, we had people on there who had a lot of imagination,” Poteat says.
Miller chaired the float sales. Others helping out on the leadership end were Paul Bernhardt, then merchants association president; Sonny Allen, Don Godfrey and Newt Cohen, all Salisbury Jaycees; Buddy Leonard, Norman Clark and Norman Lentz, all part of the merchants association; and Dr. Fred Chandler, who joined Miller and Poteat on the parade board as Salisbury Jaycees.
“It was a great experience for all of us,” Henry Bernhardt says. “That first year made the rest of them so much easier.”
Food Lion (then Food Town) co-founder Wilson Smith helped a lot with the early parades.
“He has an idea a minute,” Henry Bernhardt says. “He wasn’t just a right arm, he was both arms.”
Food Town (now Food Lion) agreed to sponsor a Miss America luncheon at the Holiday Inn. The organizers also planned a post-parade party for all the sponsors and volunteers at the Salisbury Country Club.
Henry Bernhardt also made a connection through Charles Dudley of the Charlotte merchants association with Jim Stegall, the backbone of the Carolinas Carrousel. His reputation and experience with floats and parades in general proved invaluable.
Those days were much different in Salisbury. The downtown had, for example, five department stores, numerous clothing and shoe stores, three hardware stores, six drugstores and many restaurants. It was the place for retail and a destination spot for shoppers in many counties.
In fact, the parade was billed as a Christmas greeting card for the Piedmont.
Salisbury’s downtown Christmas lights also were a source of pride, and the parades were a way to showcase the lights. When pilots for Eastern, Piedmont and Delta airlines flew over Salisbury during the holidays, they often told passengers to view the perfect cross formed by the lights on Innes and Main streets.
In 1963, organizers held a contest for giving a new name to the parade. Carl E. Weinbrunn came up with the winning “Holiday Caravan” out of 49 different entries.
Some of the names rejected included the Happy Day Parade, the Holly-Day Parade, the Snowflake Festival and Rowanorama.
Henry Bernhardt can’t help but associate Miss America Nancy Ann Fleming of Michigan with that first parade in 1960.
“She was a pretty girl, but she didn’t have on everything she should have on,” Bernhardt says.
By the time Fleming and her woman chaperone returned to Atlantic City, both women had pneumonia thanks to the frigid Rowan Christmas Parade.
Miss America official Lenora Slaughter called Bernhardt and gave him a cussing out that was worse than anything he had heard in the military. But Bernhardt somehow patched things up.
He had a new Miss America ó North Carolina’s own Maria Beall Fletcher ó back for the next year’s parade. It was much warmer.
This year’s Holiday Caravan will be held Nov. 25, starting at 2 p.m. in Spencer and 3 p.m. in Salisbury.