In 1911 Montpelier held a Labor Day parade to honor work horses. Teams of Belgians, Shires and Percherons vied for ribbons and cash prizes as 10,000 celebrants watched from the city sidewalks. The parade was the main feature of the city’s Labor Day celebration and was the brainchild of the Montpelier Board of Trade.
The event, the sponsors confidently predicted, would “eclipse anything of the kind in the vicinity for several years.” The board had appropriated funds for publicity, organization and “special prizes for farm rigs.” The Board of Trade expressed a hope that the labor unions and local merchants would decorate floats to be part of the procession.
Before the widespread use of gasoline and diesel engines to propel the machinery of commerce, horsepower was employed for virtually every task in agricultural and industrial America. Teams of horses were used to deliver everything from groceries to coal, ice and milk. When attached to a treadmill, horsepower was harnessed for cutting firewood, threshing grain or any of a wide variety of mechanical tasks. Ann Greene’s “Horses at Work” (2008) is more explicit:
”Horses were ubiquitous in nineteenth-century society. By the end of the century, a bird’s eye view of the nation would show horses everywhere, working in cities, towns and factories, on farms and frontiers, on streets and roads, alongside canals, around forts, ports, and railroad depots. Americans consumed more power from horses than from any other source.”
But by 1911, it was patently obvious that the clip-clop of horseshoes on city streets would soon be a thing of the past. The horseless carriage had made an audacious appearance in Montpelier the previous summer, when the Munsey Tour arrived in August. Thirty-five automobiles paraded through the streets of the capital city to great fanfare and acclaim. Although in 1910, there were 100 cars registered in Montpelier, 600 horses appeared in the 1911 Labor Day parade.
The first ever work-horse parade occurred in Boston on Memorial Day in 1903, and its purpose was to celebrate the noble steeds who plied the city streets but also to promote good stewardship of these essential equines. Publicity from the Boston event spawned similar parades throughout America, and Montpelier chose Labor Day for its recognition of these beasts of burden.
The holiday dawned clear and calm on Sept. 4 that year, and the Argus for Sept. 5 reported:
Montpelier celebrated Labor Day in the biggest kind of fashion yesterday. The work horse parade was the biggest feature and 10,000 people crowded the sidewalks along the line of march and watched the finest lot of horses in New England a mile-long pass before their eyes for an hour.
A concert by the Montpelier Military Band at the State Street open-air stage preceded the equine procession, commencing at 8:30 a.m. and concluded an hour later to allow assembling the horses and conveyances for the 10 a.m. parade.
According to the Argus, “the countryside came in, people driving from as many as 30 miles distant. In fact, there were automobile parties here from a distance of 75 miles.” The newspaper was very enthusiastic in its praise for the event:
The parade was one of the finest events of any character ever seen in the capital. Nothing like it was ever attempted. It was in a class by itself. In fact, the committee had never seen a work horse parade and they didn’t know how to begin, but they made a start, and praise for their success is now sung on every lip.
More than 140 horse teams were entered in the parade, and various horse-related activities were continued throughout the afternoon, including a hose-hitching contest between rival fire companies at the intersection of Bailey Avenue and State Street. “The requirement was that each hose cart should run 300 feet and the squad hitch and lay 300 feet of hose. A flying start was permitted.” Hose team Number 2 was the winner with the time of 40 and 3/5 seconds. “This time included the operation of making the 300-foot run, laying 300 feet of hose and turning on the water.” The prize was $10. “The members of the hose companies looked natty in the new uniforms and hats. The officers were also attired in new uniforms and the boys made a fine appearance both in the parade and at the contest.”
After the hose-hitching, the spectators made their way across the river to the fairgrounds at Langdon meadow (the present location of Montpelier High School), for a demonstration by the celebrated 10th cavalry from Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester. These were the famed “Buffalo Soldiers,” an African-American regiment originally formed from freed slaves after the Civil War. They had arrived in Vermont in 1909 after service in Cuba and the Philippines and had not been greeted with open arms in Chittenden County.
The hostile reaction to their presence had inflamed racial tensions. There had even been threats of Jim Crow trolley cars in Burlington, but the solders’ exemplary behavior had won over their critics, and by 1911, their mounted drills were a popular entertainment.
As 5,000 spectators watched in rapt attention, the cavalrymen demonstrated their equestrian skills, culminating in Roman riding, where a horseman stands astride two mounts while galloping around a show ring. According to the Argus, “no doubt the one thing that pleased the crowd the most was the potato race on horseback. The $5 prize was won by Private Smith of B Troop.” In a mounted potato race, according to one source,
A line of potatoes was spaced out along a course, and a rider would ride by at a loping pace, leaning down from their horse and snatching the potatoes from the ground. Riders who failed to maintain speed, or missed a potato, would be disqualified. The fastest remaining rider was the winner.
The Argus noted, “the entertainment provided was appreciated by all and the conduct of the soldiers was gentlemanly.” After their demonstration, the soldiers rode to Bolton, where they made camp for the night.
Although not one of the organizers had experience with such an event, the horse parade was considered a rousing success. “Not a man had ever seen one,” commented the Argus, “and they really didn’t know how to begin. The Labor Day celebration was the biggest entertainment for the money ever given in Vermont. No admission anywhere and all had front row seats. The finest lot of horses in the world,” was the general verdict of everyone who saw Monday’s parade.
Despite the success of the 1911 parade of work horses, it appears that the event was never duplicated in Montpelier.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian from Barre.
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