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Family Album: Vigilante Parades from the past

Family Album: Vigilante Parades from the past

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With the renewal of the Vigilante Parade scheduled for this upcoming Friday – albeit in a restricted format due to the lingering threat of COVID-19 – our Family Album column glances back at three previous parades, in 25-year intervals.

The precursor to the parade originated in the 1890s, and was called the “Senior-Junior Fight.” This activity entailed a battle between the two grades over the placement of their class flags. A few years later, the fight was moved from the ground-level flagpole to the spires on the roof of the old high school (located near Central School). After a couple years, the faculty deemed the activity too dangerous and it was discontinued.

However, this did not stop the students in following years from carrying on their own war between the classes. They fought each other at prearranged locations blocks away from the school. Without supervision, the injuries increased – leaving the adults with the challenge of curtailing the combat.

The activity later evolved into “Sneak Day,” when students would collaborate to skip school on a certain day. Later events were called “Old Clothes Day,” “Hard Times Day” and “Costume Day.”

In 1924, under the influence of Helena High principal A.J. Roberts, the school’s faculty and junior and senior classes determined that the spring happening would combine the characteristics of previous activities – excluding the fist-fights, of course.

The result was a parade to display a historical representation “of the pioneer life of Last Chance Gulch” to the town’s citizens. The Vigilante Parade is the nation’s longest running high school parade, lasting 97 years – with only a couple interruptions – and many of today’s students are the second, third and even fourth generations of their family to partake in the festivities.

Here’s a brief revue of the Vigilante Parades from 75, 50 and 25 years ago, listing some (but not all) of the winners.


This year marked the return of the Vigilante Parade after a four-year hiatus, since the event had been put on hold since 1942 due to World War II.

“Helena Sigma Chi alumni, many of them former students of the late principal A.J. (Bobby) Roberts of Helena high school, today announced a Vigilante day parade award series in honor of the late educator,” reported the May 4, 1946, Independent Record. “The A.J. Roberts Memorial Awards will go to the three best floats in the May 11 parade, the first since the war.”

Roberts, who also served as Helena’s mayor after 25 years in the Helena school system, died on November 5, 1945, at the age of 77.

The parade, under the chairmanship of W.W. Wahl, was led through downtown by the Helena High band, followed by parade marshal Henry Fiske and a group of cars loaded with local area pioneers. Fourteen years earlier, Fiske coached Helena’s Bengals to the 1932 State football championship. The 152 entries were judged by a 9-member panel.

“The ingenious and unique float depicting an earl-day ox-shoeing shop won the Hilger Sweepstakes prize for Don Lichtwardt and Robert Painter in the Vigilante Parade yesterday,” according to paper of May 11, 1946.

First place in the new Roberts Memorial Prizes – presented by Sigma Chi alumni president Henry Loble – was captured by the float depicting “Father De Smet and the First Missionaries.” The float was constructed by Alice Bennett, Peggy Mitchell, Neva Hardy, Joanne Huber, Billie Jean Tyrell, Elizabeth Bradham, Susan Kuehn, Joyce MacHaffie, Sue Heinecke and Marilyn Cartwright.

James Bottomly, Peggy Towle and Jean Handel earned runner-up, for their float of Col. C.A. Broadwater presenting a sleigh to his bride in 1873. Third-place went to Evelyn Wood Wallace and Zoe Wallace for their replica of the Custer National Cemetery at Crow Agency.

In the Pioneer Life division, the “Hanging of Clubfoot George” by Dick Carstensen, Charles Little and Stanley Rathman claimed the victory; while “Rock Grinding Mining,” with James Rummell, Joe Raymond, Jack Ehlers, Nick Wirth and Tom Ferguson, garnered the Mining category.

“John Colter’s Discovery of Yellowstone Park,” with Roy Batch and Gene McLatchy, paced the Historical Events section; with the Traders and Trappers division being won by Jim Maness, Lee Crawford and Henry Cramer, for their “Trapper’s Cabin” float.

The best cowboy and cowgirl entries were James Williams and Helen Kelly. “Homesteading” took top honors in the miscellaneous category, and was fabricated by Delores Ingersoll, Margaret Lang, Mary Lou Synness, Evelyn Bartell and Mary Murphy.

Mugshot of Francis Burgess 1946 Vigilante Parade Queen.jpg

Francis Burgess

The Roberts Cup Award for the class with the highest percentage of participation was garnered by HHS’ junior class, of which George Bennett was president.

Francis Burgess was selected Vigilante Queen, while the role of Vigilante Princess went to Shirley Williams. Rounding out the other senior Queen candidates were Norma Jean Burris, Shirley Johnson and Clara Jean Samson.

Afterwards the Pioneer Cabin on South Park Street was officially opened to the public after being closed during the war years, and was visited by hundreds of students and onlookers. The night culminated in a dance for the students, at the old high school gym on Seventh Avenue.


“Whipping winds and a bit of a chill both greeted the 44th annual Vigilante Parade in which more than 150 students from Helena High School participated in at noon Friday,” the IR stated, on May 16, 1971.

This was the second parade after the joining of Helena (Catholic) Central with HHS in 1969-70, and three years before the opening of Capital High in 1973.

Michele Wirth, Carol Wirth and Peggy McGowan were the flag girls heading the parade 50 years ago, followed by Vigilante Queen Debbie Johnson and Vigilante Princess Leslie Fuehrer, along with attendants Merris Christofferson, Shellie Hopkins, Leanne Erickson and Linda Stoll.

1971 Vigilante Parade 1

Students ride make-shift horses on a float during the 1971 Vigilante Parade.

The Sweepstakes winner was the “Fort Logan” float, entered by George Brewer, Jim Foley, Andy Poole, Tom Steckler, Gary Upshaw, Steve Blake, Pat Donovan, Jim Steckler, Tom Tillo, John Russell, Ed Miller and Jim Charlton.

The “Cromwell Dixon Airplane” by Bill Gebhardt and Don Park was judged as the Most Authentic entry.

Judges for the parade included artist Irving “Shorty” Shope, Sam Capious, Phil Ward Jr., John Quigley (Frontier Town founder) and W.E. Harrisburger. Jay Lyndes served as parade marshall.

The Most Patriotic entry was “Montana’s First Marching Hunazoo Band,” with Dennis Egan, Marty Purcell, Mars Scott, Dave Reinig, Mike Hallowell, Ed Smith, Karen Nichol, Sue Leaphart, Nancy Mazurek, Rye Warden, Judy Beneventi and Debbie Waite.

Among the other winners were “Steam Powered Trolley Car” in the Historical floats, by Bob Maynard, Dick Shoquist, Quentin Ellis and John Maynard; and in Pioneer Life the “Old Time Saloon” with Tom Harris, Judy Casey, Faye Bozeman and Cathy Huftel.

1971 Vigilante Parade 2

A bar scene is depicted on a float in the 1971 Vigilante Day Parade. 

Also in Mining, first place went to “Tunnel Mining,” with Joe Williamson, Gerald Crum, Luther Hartz, Bob Balkema, Carl Quist and Burt Bouma; while “A Cabinet Shop” garnered the best Pioneer Business, by Bob Dalley, Mike Mundt, Steve Ernst, Mark Bryson, Brian LaMoure, Eric Spitzer and Scott Frickel.

Top prize in the Horseback Western Character category went Pam Hilger, for her “School Teacher” rendition. Janet Duncan, Merris Christofferson, Laurie Smithwick, Karen Mueller and Leanne Erickson took first-place in Most Artistic with their “Bengal Float.”

The Roberts Cup, given for the largest participation percentage, went to the junior class.


Nearly 1,400 students from Helena High and Capital High, built 150 floats for the Vigilante Parade, according to HHS teacher and parade chairman Rod Boyer 25-years ago.

“IR sports editor Roy Pace will once again serve as the grand marshal, as he has for the past several years,” the paper reported. Amongst those following Pace in the lineup were “several retired teachers who traditionally supported the parade” riding the tour train in “the place of honor.”

The Sweepstakes Award winner, titled “Shaw’s Flour Mill,” was built by Meghan Aherns, Leslie Bjerke, Gina Brandon, Erin Gillespie, Angie Levandowski, Katie Mayer, Alisa Opar, Lindsey Rhynard, Darbee Sasek and Nicole Zellar.

“Building Helena’s First Lime Kiln in Grizzly Gulch in the 1870s” claimed the Most Authentic Award, with Matt Boudreau, Keith Bushnell, Josh Crum, Neil Koehler, Michael Parmer, Jeremy Hardman, Charles Leslie, Randy Parmer and Mike Miner.

The Judge’s Award winner was “First 4-H Fair” by Christi Burget, Julie Byford, Valerie Dusenbury, Darsen Gaughan, Heather Hollandsworth, Kellie Lynch, Joanna Miller, Chris Murphy, Jenne Severson, Katrina Miller and Brian Warren.

In the Mining Floats division, John Bishop, Chris Bohn, Jason Broermann, Corey Chenowith, Coy Egbert, Robert Fischer and Andy Kaleczyk fabricated the winning entry titled “Early Prospecting of the Golden Messenger Mine;” while “Schools: Then and Now,” with Jennifer Bronson, Amie Gomes, Lisa Juvik, Jeff King, Trevor Kirkland, Tawnya Lorenz, Tianna Lorenz, Tina Lucht, Ericka Matthews and Trevor Semenza, earned the title in the Montana Education category.

The Pioneer Business gold went to “An Emergency Room of the Old West” by Marshall Hibbard, Tyler Hibbard, Tyrrell Hibbard, Gerald LaChere, Shane Mundt and Kal Poole. The Hibbards are descendants of storied Montana pioneer and ranch owner Henry Sieben.

“Mount Belmont: Then and Now” won the Recreation and Environmental division, with Jessie Crawford, Nicole Croteau, Austin Elliott, Laura Hubber, Cameron Kartzman, Ryan King, Mikayla Martinelli, Jessi Meyer, David Morin, Alissa Nardinger and Russell Roman.

The freshman class, with 77.4%, captured the coveted A.J. Roberts Award Cup, while the sophomores grabbed the W.W. Wahl Award for the parade’s most prize-winning entries.

Curt Synness can be reached at 406-449-2150 or He’s also on Twitter @curtsynness_IR



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