By Sarah Lim
Merced County Historical Society’s 2024 membership calendar pays tribute to one tradition that often lifts the spirits of Merced County residents — a parade.
“A March Through Time,” as it is titled, features a parade from each decade of the 20th century, beginning with the 1903 May Day parade in Los Banos and ending with the Merced Hometown Christmas parade on Main Street in 1998. While many will be drawn to the floats, themes, and participants, others will reminisce about the businesses that also appear in the photos.
So, before we “march” down memory lane, let’s focus on the parades and the stories behind each of these parades. One of the oldest celebrations among the immigrant population is May Day. With its European origins, Los Banos’ May Day celebration was started by German immigrant Henry Miller on May 1, 1890. Miller inaugurated the tradition with a lavish picnic at his Canal Farm ranch, and the party ended with a grand ball at Gardner Hall. The parade, like the 1903 one on 6th Street (featured in January), was a later addition to the May Day festivities. Although this tradition suffered several downturns due to Miller’s death in 1916, the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, and the Great Depression, it was revived in 1938 and continues today as the May Day Fair.
While the May Day celebration in Los Banos is an annual event, the Society Circus, organized by the Women’s Improvement Club of Merced, may have been short-lived. However, its parade on May 22, 1912 was captured for future generations by photographer Frank Robinson, and one of his photos is featured for the month of February in the 2024 calendar, showcasing ladies in kimonos with parasols in a beautiful float on 16th and Canal Streets. The parade was considered a great success because it took on a new and novel approach and the spectators were caught with “a complete surprise.” The Merced Evening Sun reports, “The ferocious animals, bands of music, beautiful floats, Indians on horseback, with a variety of clever clowns, made up a procession that surpassed anything of the kind ever seen in this city.”
In the second decade of the 20th century, vehicles replacing animals became the popular modes of transportation for the parade floats, as seen in Gustine’s 4th of July parade in 1923 (featured in March). Another beautiful work by Frank Robinson, the photo shows the Goddess of Liberty, Emily Nunes, leading the parade on a ship as the patriotic procession of cars and trucks follows. One may ask why there are so many cars. Is it because they are new?
When we reached the 1930s, the cars were no longer the “new kid in town.” In fact, many parades reverted to using animals to pull the floats, especially the ones showcasing the early days, like the Stevinson covered wagon float conveying members of the pioneer Collier, Turner, and Stevinson families (featured in April). In 1935, the County turned 80, and many of its pioneer settlers passed on. So, paying tribute to them and their families was one of the reasons that Stevinson organized its Pioneer Day celebrations. Livingston Chronicle reports that nearly ten thousand people attended the 2nd Pioneer Day celebration on May 16 and 17, 1936. Of course, leading the parade was Stevinson’s proud resident, Lieutenant-governor George J. Hatfield, who was married to town founder J. J. Stevinson’s granddaughter.
1948 was an interesting parade year, so we showcase two pictures from 1948 for the 1940s decade. For the month of May, we feature another May Day photo. But this time, it is the Le Grand May Day parade. Le Grand’s May Day celebration began in 1897 as the Turner-Helm family reunion. After a few laps, it was reorganized by Le Grand High School principal Douglas Miller in 1928. May Day was later renamed Le Grand Community Day, which is still celebrated. Donna Gillette Hall remembers May Day celebrations very well as she was chosen as May Day Queen in 1948 (featured in May). She remarks that the May Day celebration was Le Grand’s way of honoring its pioneers and reuniting old friends.
The second 1948 photo (featured in June) is about the Merced County Fair Roundup parade. Unlike the Le Grand May Day Queen, who was identified, the Mexican Queen in the roundup parade is unknown. The boy in the float holds a sign that says, “Our Mexican Queen…,” but the rest of the text is not legible. So, we need your help identifying this queen and everyone else in her court. Back to the origin of the Merced County Fair Roundup Parade, the first one was sponsored by the Merchants’ Association and took place on Main Street on September 14, 1929.
The second half of this calendar features Atwater’s military parade, Dos Palos’ presidential parade, Winton’s bicentennial float, Merced’s Centennial parade, Livingston’s Veterans Day parade, and the Merced Hometown Christmas parade. Stay tuned for my next story.
The new 2024 March Through Time calendar is free to all Historical Society members when they renew their 2024 memberships; however, limited quantities are available for sale in the Merced County Courthouse Museum Gift Shop, on the main floor. The historic building is located at 21st and N streets in downtown Merced.
Sarah Lim is the director of the Merced County Courthouse Museum.