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May 7, 2004

Event kicks off town's 150th birthday celebration

From: West Hartford News, CT - May 7, 2004

By: Pam Shearer , Correspondent

The town that gave the world Noah Webster improved its vocabulary this year by learning a new word: sesquicentennial, defined by Webster's "New World Dictionary" as "150th anniversary." A word that long demands a lengthy celebration, and on May 1, it started with the biggest parade in West Hartford history.

The traffic jam began at Beechwood and Ridgewood roads as school buses turned off to unload their students at Conard High, the parade's staging site. It was chaos but controlled chaos, thanks to the WHPD traffic control. From Conard to the light at South Main the community - all ages, all races, all faiths but one town - gathered to celebrate West Hartford. Schools - public and private - were lining up with parents and teachers corralling and calming their charges, who were eager to show off their schools. Duffy School celebrated its 50th anniversary with a birthday-cake eating dragon float. Braeburn brought 35 "sunflowers," the school logo, and 56 farmers. Bugbee's banner read "1854 farmland, 2004 Bugbee." They had six staffers, 50 kids and at least one grandmother. The butterfly being the school symbol, Webster Hill brought a butterfly farm. Ronni Newton, PTO president, said it two weeks to make the float.

"Every single child in the school made a butterfly," she said.

Close to 75 people came from Aiken. Norfeldt, Charter Oak, Wolcott, Smith, Whiting Lane also sent students. St. Brigid and Northwest Catholic were there; so was St. Thomas the Apostle, its parade entry being wagons representing homeroom community service projects. Fifty children had signed up to march, but many more showed up on parade day.

At the light on the corner of South Main and Beechwood were town and state officials getting ready for the 2 p.m. start, among them U.S. Congressman John Larson, state Sen. Kevin Sullivan, state representatives Dave McCluskey, Bob Farr, and Andy Fleischmann, along with Board of Education members. The Town Council led the parade, dressed in an 1854-style that looked more colonial with knee breeches for the men and mob caps for the women.

"I feel like I'm back in 1854," said Mayor Harris with a laugh.

At 2 p.m. they took the first step of the mile and half route down South Main, past some of West Hartford's most historic homes.

By the time the parade hit West Hartford Center under the watchful eyes of Noah Webster (his statue, that is), spectators were lined up seven deep. Waiting for the floats and bands was Renee McCue, town liaison to volunteer groups organizing the Sesquicentennial. Awake since 6 a.m., she still had a smile on her face.

"The weather is absolutely perfect and everybody has come out," she said. "Every inch of South Main Street is covered with people celebrating the 150 years."

With McCue was Bob Ellsworth to record the program for WHC-TV. Ellsworth, a former West Hartford resident, used to work for WHC-TV. He recently returned to the area.

"This is the jewel of the state of Connecticut," he said of West Hartford. "It sets the example for other towns."

It certainly set an example with its Sesquicentennial parade, with 100 marching contingents and 15 bands. The parade showed off the town's present and its past.

West Hartford police officers were followed by an old black and white police car that looked too small for its driver. Firefighters sounded the horn of a modern fire truck while back in the parade was an antique fire truck from the Connecticut Fire Museum.

A favorite with kids and adults were the bands. Hall's band, playing the "Stars and Stripes," marched past old Hall High (now the Town Hall). The hottest band had to be the New Britain Golden Hurricanes dressed in heavy uniforms. Sedgwick, Conard, and King Philip also entertained the crowd.

West Hartford churches were represented by St. James's, St. Peter Claver, Bethany Lutheran, the Universalist Church, United Methodist Church, and the First Church of Christ Congregational.

Businesses new and old marched the route. An orange A.C. Petersen delivery truck from1965 got everyone's attention. Wild Oats employees, one dressed as a grape, another throwing oranges to the crowd. There were community groups like Susan Myers of Relay For Life and West Hartford Conversations on Race.

The Noah Webster House dressed in outfits from colonial to hooped skirts to flappers. In the front seat of a two-tone blue Fairlane rode Executive Director Chris Dobbs, his hair slicked back a la Fonzie from the fifties.

Special Olympic athletes from West Hartford with gold medals around their necks walked the route with their friends. Girl Scouts, Brownies, Boy Scouts marched. Little Leaguers sang "Take me out to the Ball Game." The West Hartford Public Library staffers came as favorite storybook characters with the Wicked Witch from "The Wizard of Oz" next to Pippi Longstocking. Some Zacher's Photos employees dressed in old-fashioned dusters pretended to take pictures of the Town Council with their antique cameras. Hartford Hospital had the only horse in the parade with its horse-drawn ambulance. War veterans from World War II through Desert Storm were there along with Civil War re-enactors who made more than one heart skip a beat with their rifle volley.

The parade ended an hour and 45 minutes after its start. The party adjourned to the back lawn of Town Hall where Sesquicentennial co-chair Dick Woodworth introduced his fellow chair, Madeline McKernan, to lead the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance.

"Was that a great parade or what?" asked Woodworth after the pledge. "I

hope you all enjoyed it. It's just the beginning."

He then introduced Mayor Harris who shouted, "Happy Birthday, West Hartford! Let's hear it! Wasn't that a great parade?"

Harris gave listeners a brief history lesson, reminding them that on May 3, 1854 West Hartford was born. He recalled that a young William H. Hall watched town representatives come up what was then Farmington Turnpike to Goodman Green waving the news.

"A spontaneous celebration erupted much as we're doing here today," Harris said. "We're privileged to be the heirs of this rich history. The history of West Hartford is not just a chronological tale. It's living and breathing so as we celebrate the 150th today it's up to us to connect and reconnect with our families, our friends, our neighbors, and with the community. We have to have some fun together but we also need to take a look back, remember our past, learn from our past so it can help us understand where we are today

and where we're going in the future."

After the mayor's speech, the West Hartford Symphony began its first-ever outdoor concert with the "Star-Spangled Banner." As it continued its program, the audience settled in to listen and eat their picnic dinners.

For one senior citizen, picnic meant Pizza Hut; for a mom and her two daughters, it was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Others balanced paper plates of puffy fried dough the size of a small pizza. A steady line of customers waited for dessert, ice cream from A.C. Petersen's. Music surrounding them, some worked on suntans, a few dads tossed Frisbees to their sons, and little girls did cartwheels on the lawn.

For those who had marched in the parade, it was time for a break. Sedgwick sixth-grader Devin Shaheen had played clarinet for "American Patrol" in her first parade.

"It wasn't that hard, but it was very tiring," she said.

The WHSO played Broadway selections, Sousa's Washington Post March with guest conductor Dr. David Geetter and "A Stylish Birthday" composed by conductor Richard Chiarappa. Each piece received applause, but perhaps "On Golden Pond" best captured the day's nostalgia, its gentle lilt letting listeners reflect on their town: the place where they've brought up their kids, the place where they'll grow old.

One of the listeners was Nan Glass, mayor from 1995-97 and town clerk for 16 years before that. As mayor, she pushed for a new West Hartford history book that turned into "Celebrate West Hartford."

"Today is what I call a Norman Rockwell moment, just wonderful," Glass said. "This is such a great beginning to this month long event. I'm thrilled, just thrilled."

She stopped a passing Renee McCue for a hug. After McCue left, Glass praised McCue's work.

"There aren't enough good words to say, but she's been absolutely fantastic," Glass said. "She just took this thing and she has pulled all the multitude of people and strings. The cliche that the devil is in the details and she worked with the devil and got those details organized."

After the WHSO concert, float awards were given: third place to Leisure Services for its glittery fireworks; second to the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce for a West Hartford monopoly float; and first to American School for the Deaf (ASD), who re-created a classroom with Alice Cogswell, Thomas Gallaudet's first pupil.

Next, Joe Cadieux of the West Hartford Public Library explained the time capsule that will contain town artifacts and essays on what West Hartford in 2054. Out of the more than 100 essays and poems received, three students read theirs: Elena Lang, Lynn Nichols, and Jason Paul. Nichols evoked the day's spirit in her essay.

"West Hartford isn't about petty material things," she said. "We have a spirit all our own, a pride for our community and friends. We cherish the simple things that created a happy childhood for previous generations. We love the mothers walking with their children on warm summer days, the promise of ice cream leading the way."

The day still wasn't over. Under the direction of James Boratko, an Interfaith Choir from seven West Hartford churches sang seven songs, two with the WHSO then American classics like "Shenandoah" and ending with the Negro spiritual "Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit."

After a parade like that, West Hartford has its own "spirit" of celebration. Happy Birthday, West Hartford. The party's just begun.

©West Hartford News 2004