When Allentown first began planning for its 250 anniversary, one of the first things everyone thought of to mark the celebration was a parade. With colorful floats and an historic theme it includes everything that Band City USA could imagine in its long tradition. And over that 250 year period there have been a lot of them.
Nobody can say absolutely for sure when Allentown had its first parade. Was there one to mark the reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776? Was there one to mark the end of the American Revolution in 1783? We do know both events were celebrated with prayers and services of thanksgiving. But no one can say for sure that any kind of organized parade was part of the mix.
The first organized parade in Lehigh County, which was created 200 years ago in 1812, was during the War of 1812. These were apparently musters of local militia troops in 1814 when they were sent off to meet the threat of a feared British invasion of Philadelphia.
Most of the local troops were sent off to Fort Snyder, named after Governor Simon Snyder, at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia. Although the British burned Washington D.C., they were stopped by a fierce defense in Baltimore. They retreated while carrying to Canada the body of their commander General Robert Ross- who was shot by an American sniper- in a barrel of Jamaican rum for future burial. Although several hundred Lehigh County men died from camp diseases they never heard a shot fired in anger. But their return was celebrated by a military parade to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, where a service followed.
A real celebration took place on February 28, 1815 when word reached Allentown of General Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British a month before at New Orleans. According to one account it was held at night with a torchlight procession. There was cannon fire and even, recorded for the first time, a brass band. But apparently Allentown had to go to Bethlehem to get one, suggesting there were none in the city as yet. But it was not long thereafter in 1828 that the ancestors of the city’s first Allentown Band were formed.
Gradually in the 19th century parades became part of the city’s way of life. The Fourth of July was always celebrated with a parade where the county militia would march and speeches would be given. And as in most counties the militia would have a mustering that included marching parades.
But perhaps some of the most exciting parades were held by local volunteer fire companies. Sometimes they were state firemen’s conventions that included rival fire companies. Photos from the late 19th century show large crowds and even what was apparently a temporary triumphal arch built in Centre Square. Similar arches were built in Allentown and used by the many fraternal orders that held their conventions in the city in that same era.
During the Civil War a number of military units- many of them with their own bands- paraded off to war down Hamilton Street to the troop trains that would carry them south. The first of these was the departure of the First Defenders. In April of 1861, the Allen Infantry, a local militia unit, marched off to Washington in response to President’s Lincoln’s call to defend the capital. Wood cuts done at the time show troops marching past the Zion’s Reformed Church, now Zion’s Reformed UCC Church. In the 1930s murals done for the Allentown Post Office depict this scene with a drum major leading the troops and women in hoop skirts waving farewell. How much of this is real and how much of it has to do with the artists' overactive imagination is unknown.
Perhaps the most spontaneous parade in Allentown’s history occurred on November 7, 1918. Rumors that World War I was on the verge of ending were circulating across the country when a cable from United Press war correspondent Roy Howard appeared, saying a peace armistice agreement with Germany had been signed that morning. This news arrived in Allentown that afternoon in the Allentown Chronicle and News, sparking an immediate uproar in the city.
William “Bud” Tamblyn, later a photographer/ cartoonist for the Evening Chronicle, was 13-years-old at the time and remembered the excitement it caused even many years later. The city’s bands and local amateurs seemed just to emerge on the street and began marching despite crowds that overflowed into the street and drivers going crazy. Tamblyn remembered they played Sousa marches “and, over and over again ‘There’ll Be A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight.’ ’’
It was the next morning before it was realized that Howard’s cable had apparently been based on false information and the war was not over quite yet. When the armistice was finally signed on November 11, 1918, Tamblyn remembered it as anti-climactic. Allentown rejoiced but, “it never really quite equaled the first one,” he said.
Perhaps the two largest Allentown parades occurred in 1928 and 1962. The first came about when a preliminary report by the Census Bureau said that in 1930 Allentown would have a population of 100,000. That May a massive parade of six divisions made up of 94 different groups included just about every business and cultural organization in the city. Churches and social clubs were in its ranks. It was also apparently the first time the city’s small African American population was recognized. Unfortunately, despite the ballyhoo, when 1930 census figures came out Allentown had only 92,000 people.
The 1962 parade was to celebrate Allentown’s 200th birthday. It was an event that included a parade on Memorial Day weekend that reflected both pride in the city and its growth in the 20th century. It even included a re-enactment of the Liberty Bell trek of 1777 by the Allentown Boys Club. Much hope that the parade of 2012 also makes it into the record books.