San Francisco History

Keeping Up with the Parade

by Walter J. Thompson

In looking backward, one finds it is always the picturesque and spectacular which have made the strongest and most lasting impressions upon the memory. That is why the scenes and incidents of childhood, when the mind is in process of molding and everything is novel and picturesque, remain with us, cherished with tender reverence through a lifetime to the detriment of probably more commonplace, if not important, matters.

A reunion of old San Franciscans would exemplify the issue involved. Former Washington Grammar boys could tell to a fraction the horsepower strength in Principal Joe O’Connor’s arms where they could not remember whether it was Wilson’s or McGuffey’s readers they practiced with; Lincoln boys would have a livelier recollection of “Pegleg” Murphy’s personality than of the title of the music book he favored; pioneers of the Mission could give accurate details of the rare old baseball games played in Recreation Park at Twenty-fifth and Folsom streets, while absolutely ignorant of who supplied the juniper to fence in the grounds.

If that convention was caucused, with section affairs eliminated, and asked to vote upon the feature in the old town that appealed to them most, it is safe to say the chorus would be: “The Parades”; some might expand it into, “Keeping up with the parade,” referring to a form of youthful endeavor that was once popular.

San Franciscans were ever given to parades, not through any innate desire for ostentatious display, but simply through the spirit born of their lonesomeness on arrival on this farway strand, and which called for binding links of amusement and good feeling.

One half of the town found its joy in turning out to watch the other half jubilate in gay attire and with carnival decorations. In the early days, and for many years after, politics and patriotism were the inspiration for these celebrations. When the town had a population six or seven blocks square, it organized a procession on the national holiday which paraded through the half-dozen blocks, and was then merged into a meeting on Portsmouth Square. Through each year of the fifties [1850s] those street pageants became more elaborate, with added features of original and happy conception, and each year the line of march grew longer.

Every boy in San Francisco was agreed that it was well worth waiting a twelvemonth to see one of those old time parades. While time was precious and sacred to the combustion of powder on those noisy and “insane” Fourths, it was not considered a waste of time to knock off bombarding to either “take in the parade” or to “keep up with the parade.” Note the distinction.

Taking in the parade was a commonplace, uninteresting performance. It consisted in being herded like a sheep along with the rest of the family, linked with Sister Emmaline, perhaps to some curbstone site on the line of march, and there, with a restraining paternal hand on the shoulders and the Emmaline grip on your arm, compelled to meet the derisive grins and jibes of your liberty loving chums, who, free from parental restraint, were following the daredevil aids with flowing red, white and blue sashes and mounted on mettlesome steeds that seemed to have breakfasted on steel springs.

Keeping up with the parade! That was another and a brighter story. Preparedness was a watchword with a meaning. With “double-headers” in one side pocket, “redheads” in another and “pistol” and “pop” crackers distributed in numerous sartorial arsenals, one joined the other sons of freedom in the vicinity of the parade formation, generally on Second or Third street, well prepared for any emergency or to meet any demand in the cause of liberty.

The inspection of the divisions as they took positions, “right resting” on Stevenson, Jessie, Mission and other cross thoroughfares, was a duty which the sons of freedom did not shirk. Their movements, whether in risking death beneath the hoofs of the firey chargers of Captain C. C. Keene’s yellow-plumed hussars or in skirmishing with meddlesome policemen, who in those days wore uniforms of Quaker gray, could be traced by clouds of smoke and repeated salvos of paper artillery.

The selection of parade units to escort in the presence of the admiring populace was often a matter calling for subtle judgment. The Montgomery Guards, the Sarsfield Rifles and the Wolfe Tones all afterward merged into the Third Regiment, N. G. C., were prime favorites, not so much because of their military stride, their bright guns and natty uniforms, but in what other company could be found such demigods of drum majors, chaps so chesty and beroped with gilt braid who could tread with such rhythmic, mincing steps and toss a long polished pole with glittering ball on end through such a series of gyrations, and all without disturbing the balance of that huge bearskin beehive on his head, topping a countenance given over to ferocious expression of the do-or-die-at-the-call-of-duty order? Only two things in the city were considered equally worthy of admiration with these airy and graceful autocrats who led these bands. One was the humble little shack that stood on Market street just above Seventh, where Church & Clark manufactured fireworks, and the other was the sand hill at the Eighth-street corner, next to Martin’s block, where the sons of freedom would gather that evening and join the rest of the community in “oh-ing” and “ah-ing” in delirious admiration of the city’s display of pyrotechnics in the sand lot across the way in the foreground of the excavations for the city hall that was to be.

The exempt firemen, with their new red flannel shirts, shiniest of glazed fire hats and patent leather belts, were also good pals to escort. They had every right in the world to swell up like puff adders. But they didn’t, and sometimes they smilingly exchanged countersigns with the sons of freedom and let a fellow slip and give a pull or two on the new clothesline with which they hauled Monumental No. 1. In the same class were miners, the Indians and the “horribles.” The butchers, pretty in their immaculate holiday aprons and their polished cleavers and escorting their gayly decorated two-wheeled carts, in which Mary’s little lamb rode in manifold white and fluffy and beribboned in red and blue, did not arouse any enthusiasm with the cohorts of freedom. There were too many familiar forms in their ranks, forms that had been driving those carts without the smart colors and Mary’s lamb on other days and in other places. And those brawny arms had been known to swing a whip which could care a goodly slice out of the cheek or ear of a fellow trying to negotiate a “whip-behind” ride. A bas the butchers.

Nor did the civic societies rank much higher. There was too much of a sameness about their regalias and their huge banners of green and crimson silk, set up like the mainsail of a ship in the middle of a mammoth trundle bed, at which six or eight men toiled in the hot sun like slave oarsmen in a galley, were an exhibition of enforced industry that savored of slavery, so abhorrent to all sons of freedom. Why did they not put their banners on wheels, like the Italian fishermen did their boat?

Divisions containing pioneers and citizens in carriages were under street taboo. If it wasn’t your own dad, it was some other fellow’s dad who might spot you. True enough, maybe that sire and son should fight side by side in freedom’s cause, but in view of explanations and excuses due on the morrow, it was just as well if campaign work was held on different fields.

If lacking an exalted strain of patriotism, the political parades teemed with the ardor of partisanship which appealed to young San Francisco in the abstract rather than any other way, said abstract quality being based on the picturesque, with little regard for party principles. The erstwhile sons of freedom, while still strong for individual liberty, on torchlight procession nights became sappers in keeping up with the parade. Their enthusiasm was rampant and possibly helpful to whatever side it favored, but it was not a permanent attachment to any party. But in those years when these parades were fashionable, great was the glory attached to uniformed clubs, party slogans and the myriad of concomitant features.

The Grant and Colfax campaign of ‘68, for illustration, was a grand affair for the sappers. Everything was Colfax, it seemed. Seymour and Blair had no army of men wearing oilcloth canes and carrying swinging can torches like the Grant Invincibles; they did not have a million or so of pretty white transparencies with all sorts of signs painted on them—mysterious things about “bloody shirts” and “copperheads” (whatever they were) and dozens of wagons burning red fire and breaking out with sizzling skyrockets and vari-hued balls of fire from Roman candles. What could the sapper do but come out strong for Grant and Colfax? During the big parades they sapped loyally at the Republican party’s supply of torches, fireworks and even transparencies.

Between the big parades they organized district pageants which kept the skies aflame by night and the atmosphere in tumult. Many a young Invincible wore an oilcloth cape that had that day adorned the kitchen table; many a transparency bearing the legend “Copperheads Wear Bloody Shirts” was made of sheeting from the family safe deposit vault; torches were made of preserve cans attached to the end of what had at sunrise been the handle to Ma’s parlor broom, and filled with kerosene that would never again be on hello terms with the family tank.

Many another brilliant street pageant has San Francisco seen since the political and patriotic processions of long ago, but let us pause with these young memories, crude and irrelevant in composition they may be, but let us cherish them for what they once represented to us. Echoes from the winds of childhood make sweetest music.

Else had that kind and gentle soul that dwelt in Lockerbie street in the Indiana city, and who passed over the Land of Whereaway the other day, lived and sung in vain.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 3 September 1916. 24.

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