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Rock Island Labor Day Parade

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Rock Island’s Labor Day Parade began almost by accident in 1995, when Rock Island overslept the alarm and almost missed its 150th birthday. And like a spontaneous weed that outshines the carefully tended flowers, the Rock Island parade has grown into an almost perfect specimen of its kind.

The parade was added to the list of hastily assembled 150th anniversary events when an amateur citizen, Mary Milton, offered to head a planning committee. There was no time left to plan grand themed floats full of flower petals or call in the giant helium balloons of cartoon characters. Instead, the parade that Mary and her brother, Art Milton, assembled was homemade and home grown.

Early on the morning of Labor Day, 1985, parking lots all over Rock Island were full of truck beds and hay wagons being decorated with twenty minutes of plastic wrap, crepe ribbons, and hand lettered signs. Promptly at ten that morning, some eighty rag-tag units pulled onto 18th Avenue from Washington School for the mile trip to Long View Park, led by the Rock Island High School band. There was the Rock Island citizen of the year, and the runners-up, a cement mixer, an old car spray painted pink, local politicians walking along, a bag piper, Cub and Brownie Scouts, an Olympic torch, church groups, grade school kids, basketball, volleyball, and tennis teams in their uniforms. Each group was busy throwing out candy or political leaflets or fast-food coupons.

The homegrown Rock Island Labor Day Parade was an instant hit. It has grown and grown for the past 18 years, and now includes more than two hundred units. Trucks cart along people in lawn chairs, barbershop choruses, cheerleaders, and a queen or two. In-between the trucks are rickshaws, babies in carriages, horses, rollerblades, water skiers, police cars, and a trolley car full of senior citizens.

Yes, the Rock Island parade has grown into an almost perfect parade. Almost. There are still a few holdouts: a few people standing alongside, watching the parade rather than participating. In a perfect parade, there would be no audience just standing. Everyone would join in this pilgrimage celebrating life in Rock Island.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.