(originally published 6/27/19)
On the surface, history and tradition might seem opposites. History is the record of the past, static and fixed. Tradition continues and evolves. But the truth is, traditions are history as performance art. Tradition brings history into our lives, connecting who we once were to who we are today. In some cases, the more we learn the truth of history, the more some traditions seem less worth preserving. But in other cases, traditions are durable, because they are simple and joyful.
This week, the post is not mine, although I was involved in the original publication where it was featured. The post comes from friend and fellow local writer, Nancy Parks (bio below), who lives the tradition she describes. That’s probably why I like it so much. Nancy has a strong journalism background, but here, she is also a part of the story. She shares details that only a neighbor would notice, with affection for the tradition that only a neighbor would have.
A mid-morning drive by the 600 block of Meyer Boulevard on any Fourth of July reveals a festive gathering that’s a long-standing tradition in Greenway Fields. It has all the elements associated with the family event that it is – kids on bikes and trikes draped in stars-and-stripes streamers; parents in Uncle Sam hats pulling Radio Flyer wagons stuffed with an indistinguishable blend of babies and toy animals, or leading a dog decked in patriotic garb; and always, a red convertible blaring John Phillips Sousa marches from mounted speakers. This is the gathering before the annual Popsicle Parade, a tradition that started in the 1950s that makes the streets of Greenway Fields the center of a holiday tradition that attracts families from all the surrounding Country Club District neighborhoods.
The parade, which starts promptly at 10:00, is a simple affair. No marching bands. No floats. No prizes. No contests. No committees. But for hundreds of Brookside neighbors over the years, it’s been the place to be Fourth of July morning. The event could claim its origins date to the 1920s, when the Nichols Company began the tradition of an annual district-wide Community Field Day. Although the Field Day celebrations were largely held in the spring as a friendly competition among the District’s schools, it always featured a parade of the children who usually wore patriotic costumes.
The earliest version of the parade began with Elsie Morgan and her children who lived on Jefferson Street in the 1950s, and it is Morgan who is considered by the neighborhood to be the official matriarch of the parade. Her children were the instigators. As Morgan recalled, “One year they wanted to do something to celebrate the 4th and decided the best way to do it was to make a lot of noise.” So they marched down Jefferson Street toward Southwest High School making as much noise as they could. They did that for a couple of years, and then decided to decorate their bikes. Soon all the neighbors on Jefferson joined in.” The “popsicle” part of the Popsicle Parade would come later.
An August 1979 neighborhood newsletter describes the iteration of the parade event, and puts that starting date at 1965, and was organized by two families, the Charles Faheys and the Lowell Smithsons. As the article describes the parade, it is clear that it has grown from its origins as a block-long parade. The newsletter article, written by long-time neighbor Maude Strawn, reports that the current version of the parade originated “when the small children of both couples wanted a parade of their own for their friends. The children design, print and deliver the invitations announcing the date, time and location.” The article goes on to describe the now-familiar 10:00 am starting time, and the various red-white-and blue festooned people, pets and conveyances that populate the parade. The route in 1979 started at Meyer Boulevard and Jefferson Street, proceeded south to 66th Terrace (in the Romanelli Gardens neighborhood), across to Ward Parkway, up the Parkway and back to Meyer Boulevard and Valley Road. But there was still no reference to any popsicles.
The Laheys continued the tradition until 1981, when Jan Marcason (later a city council member) and her family, the Welshes, moved into the Lahey’s old house, and consequently inherited the event, which they hosted for seven years. It was during this period that the event was permanently dubbed the “Popsicle Parade.” The popsicles were donated by long-time Brookside business, Meiner’s Grocery, and originally, a keg of beer as well. Marcason recalled that even when they discontinued the beer, “it didn’t diminish the crowds. It always amazed us at how many people showed up. That first year we didn’t know what to expect, but the decorated bikes kept coming and coming. It was a grand system. The entire event lasted an hour and after everyone was gone, folks would help clean up. Within a half hour, it was as if the parade had never happened. After we left Brookside our kids still wanted to come back year after year. The parade was part of their growing up.”
In 1992, Amy and Mark Thompson moved into 635 Meyer Boulevard and agreed to pick up the tradition where the Welshes left off. Amy Thompson remembered “That first year I wondered if anyone would show up. But right before 10:00 kids and families arrived as if on cue. And BAM we had a parade. Over the years more than 300 people gathered on our sidewalk and lawn…ready for the parade to start. No flyers…no reminders…people just knew. It was a privilege to host it.” Since 1992, the parade route has headed east from 635 Meyer Boulevard to Jefferson Street, then south to 65th Street, west to Valley Road and north back to Meyer.
Linda Vogel bought the house in 2003. She tells the story that her real estate agent, Jane Bruening, told her that the owners of 635 Meyer always hosted the annual Popsicle Parade and she’d best carry on the tradition. Like the Thompsons before their first parade, Vogel had no idea what to expect. “A neighbor helped me secure the popsicles and then I waited.” Vogel hosted the event until she moved in 2011. “I now live up north and there’s nothing like the Popsicle Parade anywhere around. It’s such a marvelous way to meet neighbors and catch up with friends.”
“635 Meyer is magic,” says Helen Lea who lives next door and whose late husband Al often led the parade in his red convertible. Former resident Robin Lockwood brought her four-year-old son to a recent parade. “He loved decorating his bike, just like I did. Now he wants to come back to Kansas City every Fourth of July to ride in ‘mom’s parade’.” Former homeowner host Amy Thompson captures the sentiment well. “The Popsicle Parade is all about tradition, one that involves fellowship, neighbors, patriotism and lasting memories.”
Those memories have grown right along with the parade itself. As parade founder Elsie Morgan observed, “It’s amazing what the parade has grown into.” For years, the parade has been drawing participants from well beyond the neighborhood’s borders. Today, more than 300 neighbors and their families show up annually for the event. The culmination is the when the popsicles are handed out on the lawn of host family at the end of the parade. Participants marvel at the charming simplicity of the event. “Where else can you go to a party,” asks Thompson, “where you don’t have to bring a covered dish, don’t have to RSVP, involves the whole family and lasts for an hour. It’s always been a time to connect with neighbors and create memories for kids that will last a very long time.”
The tradition of the Independence Day Popsicle Parade seems well-secured. As the neighborhood reached its centenary year, hosts Marianne Roos and David Bland, who call the parade “a lovely Norman Rockwell moment,” say they’ve been amazed at how the neighborhood chips in to help. “We’re so happy to be a part of this long-standing Brookside custom as well as watching our grandchildren become parade regulars.”
[Photo: July 4, 1994, the Popsicle Parade begins with the brand of organized chaos mixed with unbridled enthusiasm that small children bring to every celebration. Courtesy of Anne Canfield)
About the Author: With decades of professional experience, the writing portfolio of this week’s guest writer, Nancy Parks, covers a wide range of literary talents – including copywriting, journalism, children’s literature, and playwriting. She originally contributed this piece to a 2017 book on the history of her Kansas City neighborhood, Greenway Fields, where the Popsicle Parade had its start.