The Backstory: Ann Arbor loves a parade

Parades have been a part of life in Ann Arbor since its earliest days
There's something about a parade that makes people happy. Being outside, hearing the bands, smelling the smells (even the elephant poop ones), seeing the floats and the people waving…it awakens something in us. Maybe we remember having costume parades as a child. Or maybe we remember watching the Detroit Thanksgiving Day parade while the turkey roasted in the oven. Maybe it's just being surrounded by happy people.

Parades have been a part of life in Ann Arbor since its earliest days. In 1861, the Michigan Argus honored the soldiers of Camp Fountain with a public dinner and parade. The paper reported that despite the "look" of the sky, farmers and their families flooded in with enough "substantials and luxuries (to) satisfy and delight the physical man." In 1897, the Ann Arbor Cycle Club had a "monster bicycle parade", accompanied by buglers. Their purpose was to have fun, but also to demonstrate the large number of bicycles in the city ...and the need for good roads to ride upon (a sentiment that still seems to be with us).

But in days past, the biggest and most exciting parades were those celebrating the return of the circus.In 1883, the biggest day of the year in Ann Arbor (according to the Courier, anyway) was that day when the circus came to town from Lansing. Of particular interest was the "mastodon," Jumbo, who ate up all the candy and peanuts in town. In 1897, the Barnum and Bailey Company based its parade around a recreation of Columbus' return to Barcelona after his discoveries in the "new world". The Ann Arbor Argus promised wild beasts, golden chariots, hippodrome riders and a team of 40 horses driven by one man. The 1898 Ringling Brothers circus parade featured elephant comedians, a traveling aviary and, of course, acrobats.

While most of these parades happened in fairer weather, Ann Arbor did see a midwinter circus announced via a parade including the Light Infantry and local city bands. This circus, according to the newspaper, "must be seen by everybody who enjoys a good laugh."

After the turn of the century, circus parades continued to delight. The Parker & Watts parade brought the usual elephants and floats to town in the 1930s. But other events were honored and celebrated as well. In 1918, the city held an Armistice Day parade in 1918. During World War II, the parades took on a patriotic air. There were several war bond parades, as well as a 1943 parade featuring a Japanese submarine. After the death of President Roosevelt, the University of Michigan Soldiers led a parade in his honor.

There were also parades to raise money for polio research. Groups like the American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps participated in these events, to raise money for the March of Dimes.

And then, of course, there were the Christmas parades that brought Santa to town. The jolly old elf was accompanied by his reindeer in a spirited march down Main Street. Ever the kind-hearted soul, Santa then visited children who were hospitalized. The Michigan Eagles hosted a parade of drill teams and performers to close their conventions. In the spring, there was a Michigras parade to go along with the Michigras celebration at U-M. This event united "town" and "gown" with extravagant floats and much fun. Every October saw numerous school costume parades around the neighborhoods. The Chamber of Commerce also put on a Halloween Parade, featuring not just costumed revelers but clowns, floats, and marching bands. November saw the Veterans' Day parade, featuring uniformed veterans from all areas of service. Even the Soap Box Derby was reason enough for a parade featuring marchers, dancers, and a queen. And of course, University of Michigan hosted annual Homecoming parades filled with floats, bands, and the Homecoming queen.

There are still notable parades in our area—Fourth of July parades in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and surrounding areas, and the neighborhood Glazier Way Memorial Day parade, for example. The past ten years has also brought us Festifools, which features papier mache creatures, robots, and even the former mayor's head.

Every April, Main Street is jammed with festooned merrymakers dancing and jumping about. Although the parade is affiliated with University of Michigan, anyone can make a puppet and get to dancing.The Arts Director at the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program, Mark Tucker, is the genius behind all of this tomfoolery. In 2006, he and Scholars Program alum Shoshana Hurand worked with the non-art majors who were taking Tucker's "Art in Public Spaces" class. They also reached out to anyone who wanted to help—other students, community members, anyone who was willing to be a little foolish. Using clay, glue, paint, and anything else on hand, they made art.

The first Festifools parade hit the streets on April 1, 2007, and early April in Ann Arbor has never looked the same. The celebration now includes a Festimoon (aka Fool Moon) parade the Friday night before the main Sunday parade. In the hours before midnight, the streets of Ann Arbor are lit with luminaries and glow sticks as people parade about the streets of our beautiful downtown.

Sure there are a lot fewer of them these days, but the parades continue to bring out the kid—and fool—in us all.

Patti F. Smith is a freelance writer. Her first book, Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor, was published by Arcadia Publishers. It is available on her website,, as well as local bookstores.