May 14 2009 12:00 AM

Lansing’s sesquicentennial parade forms up with its forerunners

On May 16, 2009, a three-and-a-halfhour Parade of the Decades will mark Lansing’s 150th birthday.

It’s a timely trick of the odometer. The city’s mood is just right for back-looking. Right now, the other direction is looking a little scary. After 50 years of brushwhacking a capital out of primeval forest and a century of building cars, what comes next for Lansing?

Nobody knows, but we do know where we’ve been.

Despite uncertain times for Lansing, one comfort we can take from the photos on these pages is that nostalgia is not unique to our era. A hundred years ago, people were already looking back fondly on the past.

On “Pioneer Day” circa 1913, citizens trotted out a symbolic log cabin and rolled it down the city’s newfangled brick roads.

Back then, Lansing was only cranking up for its glory years — a century of industrial dominance, with the curved-dash Oldsmobile in the lead. Michigan’s capital had barely taken over from mud, mosquitoes and bears. There was a deluxe ride ahead. Even so, a part of Lansing already pined for the unspoiled skies, unlimited wild game and nonexistent taxes of the pioneer years.

Nostalgia is as old as whatever people have nostalgia for.

On many afternoons in Lansing’s 150 years, parades have opened a fleeting toll road through time.

At the city’s 1959 centennial, men in thick-rimmed glasses and women in beehive hairdos tooled down Michigan Avenue, twirling parasols, stepping back into the early automobile days.

But the photos on these pages also show that through the years, parades have been a lot more than quaint exercises in nostalgia.

They sent men off to war and welcomed them home. They turned the city out to welcome a traveling circus. They honored national heroes, fresh from some far-flung triumph.

This isn’t New York or Chicago. Lansing never got to throw ticker-tape at General Grant or swoon over the Apollo astronauts.

But we did have parades for Commodore George Dewey and President Theodore Roosevelt — heroes of one of America’s more dubious military adventures, the Spanish-American War.

Lansing’s status as the capital city adds another dimension to its parades.

Over the years, parades have also served as exhibitionist shows of muscle for a wide variety of in- and out-groups.

Political activists, labor union members and civil rights advocates have all marched the streets of the capital.

The events have ranged from the joyous to the benign to the ominous. The Knights Templar, a mason ic organization, marched Lansing’s streets more than once.

And then there is the KKK. It may surprise peo ple who enjoy flowery floats and shiny tubas when that one of Lansing’s darkest days was a gala parade: the infamous 1924 Klonvocation of 15,000 Michigan Klan members and 50,000 spectators.

But the state capital isn’t only a target for hate groups. In the 1970s, human rights advocate Cesar Chavez made several walks down Michigan Avenue while campaigning for the rights of migrant workers and against the use of agricultural pesticides. Former Lansing Mayor Tony Benavides, who was head of the Cristo Rey Community Center from 1969 to 2003, said Chavez would often march from MSU to the Capitol joined by 300 or so supporters, mostly students.

But leave it to the MSU men’s basketball team to really draw a crowd. After the men’s team won it all in 1979 and 2000, Lansing parade guru Duane Vernon (cochairman of the Parade of the Decades) and volunteers helped organize victory parades, the former going from East Lansing to the Capitol, and the latter in the opposite direction. Vernon said the 2000 parade drew about 400,000, a record for any such event outside Detroit.

In the ‘90s, Vernon helped head the Michigan Parade, a series of processions to welcome the new century. He’s also helping to advise on Saturday’s festivities.

After about a dozen successful runs, you pick up a few things, and Vernon, 77, said there are five things people like to see in a parade. In no particular order, they are: bands, military, clowns, animals (i.e., horses) and, of course, fire trucks. Now that you’ve got your scorecard, let’s take a look at how we’ve done over the years.

(Eric Gallippo contributed to this story)

Parade of the Decades

a.m. Saturday, May 16 Parade begins at corner of Pennsylvania and
Michigan avenues, heads west to Capitol Avenue, south to Allegan
Street, and west to Pine Street.