Mary Lou and I bought our cabin near Debs, Minn., 30 years ago, and our first experience with the annual Fourth of July parade came in 1990. And it was wonderful.
We and our children and grandchildren both watched in pride as the Pinewood American Legion presented the colors and joined in the national anthem. All of us -- parade participants, the volunteers who ran the parade, and audience members -- felt like part of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Mary Lou and I already knew of the town’s namesake, Eugene Debs. We knew he started out in Terre Haute, Ind., worked for the railroad and was involved in the labor movement. He also ran five runs for president as a Socialist receiving a million votes on his last run while confined in a federal prison. Though never elected, he nevertheless facilitated social changes we take for granted today.
He also advocated for women’s and children’s rights.
How did the start of the parade change over the years? I’ll bet veterans from Pinewood always presented the colors and someone (or maybe the audience) sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This year, Jill Winger did those honors. And I’ll bet that over the years, those watching the parade got lumps in their throats just as we did last month.
There were only six parade entries in 1980, and subsequently, Diane Schwan (the master of ceremonies back then) thought the parade ought to go around a second time. “If you haven’t seen everything you want to see,” she reasoned, “the Debs parade will go around twice.” And the change continues today. This year, viewers watched 36 entries according to Kurt and Kari Stai, who registered them.
Sometimes people saw things that weren’t part of the parade. Aircraft flew by, for example, including a home-built glider powered by a 2-stroke gasoline engine to a WWII B-24 bomber.
And one year, Ron Brown played “The Star Spangled Banner” from the top of the Debs School. Ron was quite a trumpeter, you see.
Huge potluck lunches started being served a few years into the parade’s history, this tradition running for a few years more.
Indeed, food contributed mightily to the Debs parade. Initially, it came from the co-op store located behind the wagon where Jan True (the master of ceremonies for the past few years) announced this year’s parade entries as they passed by.
Since the store went out of business, vendors appeared to provide culinary services.
While the audiences' responses to the entries haven’t changed, they have increased in volume due to their increased sizes -- under 50 the first year, under 200 when we first saw it, to this year’s estimated 2,000. No wonder there was more clapping, cheering, and laughing than previously.
Who were these people? More states are represented each year, and more important, more people come from Beltrami and surrounding counties. How do we know this? We know of many who invited others to join then, the invitees subsequently returning on their own.
And we heard a story this year from an Arizona couple. Camped south of Bemidji, they asked the people running the campground if there was anything to see on July 4, and they learned the Debs parade was “not to be missed.” Afterward, they declared that this claim absolutely correct.
Do other out-of-town visitors feel this way? The owner of the MG A described earlier knew of the parade even before he and his wife left Virginia and here they were on July 4.
Sadly, things we enjoyed in previous years were missed this year. For example, we miss both The Almost Mobile Marching Band, led by Ron Brown’s pick-up band in 1983, and the Bemidji High School Band more recently. But my family’s favorite were entries made up of grandchildren of proud local grandparents who carried signs reading “My grandpa and grandma are … and ….” Some of the kids, though old enough to march and carry these signs, were too young to understand why people in the audience were clapping and laughing and cheering as they walked by. These unhappy kids were easily identified and spectators rushed out to reassure them and calm them down. It was something you’d expect to see in the kind of Norman Rockwell painting described earlier.
What’s the bottom line here? Despite the fact that Mary Lou and I live here a few months each year, the Debs 4th of July Parade is an important reason we come up. In fact, if you ask me where I’m from, and while I’d say Mary Lou and I live most of the year in Arizona, I’d take my time deciding whether to say we summer in “Minnesota,” “Northern Minnesota,” “the Bemidji area” or what. But if I suspect you are familiar with the nicest parts of the state, I’d immediately add, “Debs.”
Author’s note: I’m indebted to Jan True and Diane Schwan who shared long histories with the Debs 4th of July Parade. Both women provided critical information I used in this writing. This means if you enjoy what you read, please let them know.
Hank Slotnick is a retired UND professor who winters in Pima, Ariz., and, with his wife, summers in Debs.