Event a continuation of various pageants dating back to early 1900s
by Carla Occaso
BARRE — Thom Lauzon, mayor since 2006, grew up in Barre, graduated from Spaulding High School, and remembers earlier days of commemorating the city’s rich heritage. He said he is a great enthusiast of Barre’s history and takes part in the Heritage Festival and Homecoming every year.
“I think there’s more of an awareness. My children are more aware of their heritage,” Lauzon said, adding that he is of French-Canadian descent and his wife, Karen, is “amazingly Italian.”
Lauzon told The Bridge by telephone recently that he remembers decades ago the beginnings of the current celebration when people in town dressed up in historic costume to memorialize the past. It lasted days and had everything from parades and costumes to a shaving challenge whereby you had to pay for a “shaving permit” in order to have the privilege of shaving. Ladies had to buy a permit to wear a bonnet. People in all professions from all over town participated, Lauzon remembers.
The festival Lauzon remembers is one that started out being a multiple daylong event to celebrate the history and ethnicity of town. Organized by a committee in 1970 as part of an economic development plan, the city put on an enormous eight-day undertaking called the “Barre Heritage Festival” from July 18 to 26 of that year. It was planned long in advance with the help of a professional organizing company based in Ohio, according to meeting notes of the time. The Bridge learned additional historic details from Assistant Librarian Marjorie Strong and Librarian Paul Carnahan at the Vermont History Center in Barre July 7. The center has an enormous collection of scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, maps, drawings, photos and reports from that time.
“Don’t Miss the Barre Area Story ‘Heritage of the Hills’ — a mammoth historical pageant-spectacle saluting 190 years of progress. Professionally directed by Chris Goodyear of the Rogers Producing Company with a cast of 300 local actors and actresses on a 280-foot panoramic stage,” the event brochure states. Tickets were $2 for adults and $1 for children, but you could have reserved seats for $3 and patron seats for $5.
It started on a Saturday and ran through the week to the following Sunday — incorporating two consecutive Saturdays with nonstop events from morning until night. Days leading up to the event — from Wednesday on through to Saturday — were called “Merchants Old Fashioned Bargain Days.” Then a food sale was held beginning at 10 a.m. at the Presbyterian Church. The “official opening ceremony” happened at the Main Street Mall with the presentation of window display awards to merchants. Then came a band concert, a fireman’s demonstration and a special water polo contest between the Barre Town Selectmen and the Barre City Aldermen. The local newspaper, which was then the Barre Daily Times, put out a special “Festival Edition” covering the history of Barre. The front page depicted a famous fire, the flood of 1927 and a grand hotel. Also during opening ceremonies, the Barre area business community gave away the keys to a new car to draw attention to the week. The day ended with a grand ball in which a queen and her court were chosen and presented. The person crowned queen was Mary Ann Parnigoni, and she is pictured in the newspaper wearing a crown and a sash.
It is interesting to note that also in the news of the time — though tucked inside the paper — was the military conflict in Vietnam.
Barre City’s mayor at the time, Wilfred Fisher, and chairman of the Barre Town board of selectmen, Gordon Booth, made much of the event in what looked to be a bit of fun. They co-issued a proclamation urging people to show a festive spirit by displaying flags, banners, bunting and patriotic decorations. Other instructions they issued to the citizenry, months prior to the event, “that each and every person, both male and female, from head-size four to head-size eight in cranial measurements, begin on the date of April 22 next, to wear the official heritage headgear and on every official dress up day thereafter.” And woe be to those who did not get involved. “Those who fail to appear in such official headgear (except members of the clergy or the military in uniform) either when riding in their carriages, surreys, Victorias or buckboards on the highways or the lanes, or when strolling in the park … shall be undoubtedly be liable to apprehension and MOST PROBABLY be INCARCERATED in the confines of the stockade and/or Ye Old Stocks, there to suffer the pangs of humiliation and be exposed to condemnation on the part of the horrified multitude.” The headgear was distributed to any and all for a “small established price” to support the celebration.
The pageantry, music and heraldry continued for seven more days to include a full day of religious heritage events — the first Sunday ended at Thunder Road with a concert by all the massed choirs of all the churches. The sermon was issued by the Reverend Charles Calcagni. Monday was senior citizens day, Tuesday was sports and recreation day, Wednesday was arts and crafts day (Barre Paletteers), Thursday was ladies day (lawn teas, garden clubs and costume displays) and Friday was young America day (pet parade, swimming and a dance), Saturday was good neighbors day (barbecue and a time capsule) and Sunday was a “final spectacular performance at Thunder Road.” Each day was also covered in great detail with photographs by the Barre Daily Times, including a photograph of Colonel Harland Sanders — the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken — who came to town to visit one of his newest restaurant outlets. He is pictured in the newspaper next to Roy Turner of Barre, who is wearing a similar white beard and bolo tie.
Then Barre took a break for a few years, probably to catch its breath.
But again, in 1978, another heritage festival was held, according to an article written in 2011 by former Aldrich Librarian Karen Lane. Lane’s article describes an event held on Main Street that featured a parade of people representing the various ethnic groups that set roots in Barre — Scottish, Italian, French, Polish, Canadian, Middle Eastern, Spanish, Greek, Scandinavian and more.
“It was a much wilder success than they expected,” said Assistant Librarian Marjorie Strong. “It was a shock, actually.”
The crowds grew bigger each year, until 1982 when a reported 30,000 swarmed the center of town. Nobody heard or knew about a grave tragedy that occurred to a young Spaulding High School graduate during one night of the festival until the next day. Somewhere along the way “we lost sight of our heritage,” as Lauzon put it, and the festival became “an excuse to party.” It became a wild and rowdy event that culminated with the murder of 18-year-old Pamela Brown in 1982. The killer wasn’t identified until 2009 with the use of DNA testing. Because of that, the festival was cancelled the next year, and when it reappeared in 1984, it was held in the auditorium.
But the heart had gone out of it for a while, and the event lay latent until 1996, when it was again revived. This year’s event is called “Barre Heritage Festival and Homecoming Days.” It will run from Wednesday, July 27 through Sunday July 31. Many groups and families also use festival time to schedule reunions, according to Strong.
Barre Partnership is presenting this year’s event along with Froggy 100.9 FM, Frank FM 107 and WSNO 1450 AM. Underwriters are the City of Barre and the Town of Barre. Cornerstone Pub and Brew is the City Hall Park Stage sponsor.