We Go Way Back

The rich history of the Northside Fourth of July Parade

It's no secret that the Northside neighborhood throws an Independence Day party like nobody’s business. Folks flock from all over the Cincinnati area to spend some time in the city’s hub of all things hip for two full days packed with live music, local food, a family-friendly carnival and, of course, the annual Fourth of July parade.  

What most spectators and marchers might not know? They’re carrying on a 158-year-old tradition that dates back to the days when Central Parkway was underwater.

While the Northside Fourth of July Parade is all about entertainment, diversity and community togetherness, the original affair in 1854 consisted of some nuns and orphans marching to their new home — not particularly related to patriotism, revolution or independence at all, actually. The Northside parade’s website (www.northsidejuly4.com) cites Dann Woellert’s book, Cincinnati’s Northside Neighborhood, in order to deliver the historical facts that most committee members have only recently discovered themselves.

In the 1850s, The Sisters of Charity’s downtown orphanage was no longer big enough to house all of the children residing there. Archbishop John Baptist Purcell purchased a plot of land from Jacob Hoffner for a new building that could house 100 children. On July 4, 1854, the nuns, children and volunteers helping with the move marched from downtown to the new St. Joseph Orphanage, located in the area where Northside’s New Chase School and McKie Recreational Center stand today.

The crowd continued down Central Parkway, or what was then the Miami-Erie Canal that used run through the location.

“The women and children rode the canal boats on what is now Central Parkway and the men marched alongside under the direction of Captain Robert Moore,” the site declares. “The procession was made up of members of the Turners, the Oddfellows organization, the Butchers association, the Bricklayers Society and the Catholic Orphans Society.”

Little did these organization members know that they were laying the groundwork for a tradition that would last well past the lifetime of anyone present that day.

“They made a sort of grand opening of the new location — the new orphanage — they made it an organized parade,” says Chuck Brown, head of the Northside Fourth of July Parade Committee.

Apparently, everyone had so much fun the first time around that they continued to bring the parade to the streets every year, commemorating the move in coordination with the celebration of our nation’s independence. The event often served as a fundraiser for the orphanage, Brown says.

Throughout its transition from burgeoning suburb to progressive urban community, Northside has managed to keep the parade going almost every year. Until Cincinnati’s Northside Neighborhood hit shelves, however, it seems that residents continued to put on the event without any knowledge of its rich history.

“We [parade committee members] would ask the oldest people we could find in Northside,” Brown says. “We would say, ‘How long has the parade been going on?’ And it was always, ‘Oh, it’s been going on as long as I can remember, probably at least 50 years.’ ” They didn’t speak with author Woellert to learn just how deep the parade’s history runs until after his book was published in 2009.

Today, of course, Fourth of July parades occur in many communities. Different groups and organizations march, candy is thrown and later in the day families sit in their lawn chairs to watch the fireworks. The history of each individual gathering doesn’t necessarily beg to be questioned. The Northside Fourth of July Parade, however, has always stood out among the ranks as something special.

“The Northside Parade is a very unifying event; it is the big production for Northside that we all look forward to,” says Martha Dourson, Northside Community Council President. “[There’s] lots of support, lots of volunteers, lots of fun — a great day for Northside to be in the spotlight.”

Each year, approximately 100 different groups register for the parade, automatically entering the Creative Parade Entries contest. That incentive keeps things fun, energetic and entertaining in the summer heat. Victoria Fleischer, a Northside resident who has participated as a lawn chair lady in the parade for 10 years, says that’s what kept her coming back to participate.

“I wanted to be part of the lawn chair ladies because I’m an ex-drill team member from high school and found the concept of a drill team with lawn chairs to be funny and wanted to be part of it,” Fleischer says.  “This year, I’ll be in danceteria because I love the idea of dancing in the street.” She notes that people come from other parts of Cincinnati to attend each year for lack of better Independence Day celebrations in the area and because “there is a quirkiness to it that isn’t found in other parades; [it] reflects the alternative lifestyle of the neighborhood.”

The fact that something as simple as an annual parade can bear such a rich history for a neighborhood like Northside is fascinating, to say the least. It’s a party with a purpose — to take part in Cincinnati history, carry on a tradition and celebrate creativity. Just in case you needed one more reason to kick back and take part in the festivities this Fourth, just know you’ll be doing your part to make history by carrying on the tradition, whether it be from the street or the sidelines.

The parade starts at noon Wednesday and will run along Hamilton Avenue. Festivities don’t stop there, though: It all starts July 3 with the annual Northside Rock N’ Roll Carnival at Hoffner Park running from 2:30 p.m.-1 a.m. A pre-parade Kegs N’ Eggs breakfast will await at the park from 10 a.m.-noon, but if a.m. drinking isn’t your thing, there will also be a Red, White and Blueberry Pancake Breakfast at the North Presbyterian Church from 9 a.m.-noon. The Northside July Fourth Family Fun Carnival will take over the park after the parade from 2:30-5 p.m. For a full list of event details, visit www.northsidejuly4.com and www.northsiderocks.com.

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