Revisiting Bunker Hill Day Parades of the Past
Writer Helen O'Neil recalls the good (and bad) parts of the Bunker Hill Day Parades from her childhood.
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Thinking back on my childhood memories of the Bunker Hill Parade, at first I could only seem to remember the unpleasant parts. How hot it often was, so stifling while standing at the corner of Bunker Hill and Pearl, waiting for the seemingly endless parade to be over. And how everyone was drinking out in the streets.
But this week I talked with some family members, and asked them to tell me what they remembered. The conversations helped surface some of my own fun times. There were plenty of them.
My mom has probably been to 85 or so Bunker Hill Day celebrations. When my dad was alive, they entertained all through the day and invited our relatives to come over from Dorchester and Quincy. Dad made his famous potato salad and loved watching the parade. My father was a commercial fisherman, but usually took the trip off so he wouldn’t miss the fun.
It seemed that we were treated to a lot of the music and that the bands, marching up the hill with just the drum beat, would strike up just as they hit our corner. The best drum and bugle corps was a group called the Cavaliers. They wore red and black satin uniforms -- on the hot days I thought they must be sweltering -- but they played their bugles with such passion and volume that it was riveting. The music has always been great. It’s probably the best part of the parade.
My mother remembers Dot Slamin, an "outstanding drum major." My sister Nancy also remembers Dot, who would "throw the baton up in the air, turn around several times and then catch it, and people would cheer."
The parade was, and still is, famous for its politicians. They seemed to stay so clean and sweat-free, in their crisp white shirts, trudging up the hill on a hot June day. I loved when they broke out of the parade and ran to kiss ladies on the cheek, or pat a child on the head, or, later on, pass out emery boards and combs with their name and number on them. I loved the emery boards. I thought, "what a useful gift, and a phone number, in case I ever needed to call a politician."
My grandmother went down to Hayes Square, with her friends Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Bonnetti, to hear James Michael Curley speak. My grandmother said he had a "beautiful voice, with a wonderful delivery." She said he was "distinct, easily heard and eloquent."
John Kennedy marched when he was running for his first congressional seat; John Kerry marched much later when he was running for president. In between were the mayors, senators, sheriffs and clerks of the court.
My sister Mary remembers lots of house parties after the parade with great sandwiches and lots of sweets. “We were in everyone's house. Everyone’s relatives from all over Boston came for the parade and stayed all day.” She remembers getting very dressed up and says we all got new outfits. In the morning we went to the doll carriage parade and then later watched the winners be part of the big parade.
Miss Charlestown rode atop a white cadillac convertible. Our friend Melody Gayer was Miss Charlestown one year. One of the storefronts on Bunker Hill near Monument Avenue had pictures of Miss Charlestown and the runners-up framed in the window all summer.
My sister Mary marched in the parade in 1968 as a Charlestown High School cheerleader and my brother Dan has marched many times. Nancy loved it when someone on one of the floats tossed her a bouquet of lollipops.
I loved the "dolls on a stick." These were dolls with beautiful faces, wearing pearls and earrings and a gorgeous dress. They were mounted on a kind of a cane so you could walk along with your doll. The vendors had such great stuff, but the dolls were always the most desirable and fun to have. You never saw these sold anywhere else.
Somewhere there is a picture of me, with my doll on a stick, with my brother Lon. We are standing next to one of the parade horses. After the parade was over the mounted police and their horses hung around the neighborhood. Some of the horses wandered onto Pearl Street. What fun it was to get up so close to something so large. If I could only find that photo...