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A Very American Celebration

Shenandoah Valley museum keeps parade memories afloat

August 2023

Photos by Amanda S. Creasey

by Amanda S. Creasey, Contributing Writer

In 1946, when he was 18 years old, Earl Hargrove worked designing and building animated department store holiday window displays. In the true spirit of the American dream and work ethic, roughly four years later at age 22, he was on the phone with the White House discussing the possibility of creating floats for the upcoming Inauguration Day Parade. He earned the bid for President Harry S. Truman’s second inauguration in 1949, and his company, Hargrove Inc., has gone on to design and build the presidential, vice presidential and first lady floats for every Inauguration Day Parade since. 

One Man’s Legacy

Although Hargrove passed away seven years ago, his company still thrives today, and the floats and props he created over his decades-long career survive, showcasing bold colors, fanciful designs and American patriotism. Hargrove’s is a legacy of innovation, imagination and whimsy, all on display in the middle of a cow pasture in Quicksburg, Va. 

In 1966, when Hargrove visited Winchester, Va., to design a float for the area’s upcoming Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, he learned the Shenandoah Caverns property was for sale and purchased it. In addition to touring the Caverns, since the year 2000 visitors to the property have been able to tour American Celebration on Parade, the 40,000-square-foot, warehouse-style building where rest many of Hargrove’s impressive and festive retired parade floats. The building is one of only two float buildings in the country. The other is in New Orleans. 

Guided Tours

When it first opened, American Celebration on Parade offered only self-guided tours. Present-day visitors, however, will find themselves treated to a delightful, 45-minute guided tour of the vast warehouse and its colorful contents. Visitors purchase tickets in the lobby under the jovial and watchful eyes of a massive jester, who straddles the roof of the ticket booth, gleefully plucking a stringed instrument. To the left stands a massive, fantastical tree. Like something straight out of a fairytale, its branches drape over that side of the lobby. To the right stand cheerful, life-sized figurines that seem to be carolers. Just outside a replica Statue of Liberty greets visitors as they pull into the parking lot. The tour begins with a short video interview with Hargrove, the man behind the museum. At the time the video was recorded, the museum welcomed 90,000 visitors each year. 

Repurposed Materials

One of the first floats visitors feast their eyes on features several joyful ducks sporting umbrellas and frolicking among flowers, birds and grasses. According to the museum, this float would cost roughly $150,000 to produce today. Its ducks have lived several lives, appearing in the 1991 Rose Parade as well as in a Thanksgiving parade in Philadelphia, where they were clad as hockey players. Not only are these ducks reused, but so is the foliage in the trees above their heads; the leaves and flowers sprouting from the branches first served as decorations for John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball. The museum is indeed as much a feat of reusing and repurposing as it is of imagining and creating. The next float features two elephants, a mother and her baby. A true engineering marvel, the entire display balances on a single leg of the mother elephant. Mother and baby appeared in three parades during their tenure: the Rose Parade, the Fiesta Bowl Parade and a Thanksgiving Day parade in Philadelphia.

Like many of the floats on display here, this one moves. If a visitor presses the large, round, red button, the baby elephant begins to gleefully swing back and forth. This same float allows visitors a peek inside, where they can see the workings behind the whimsy. Popping their heads inside the trapdoor, museumgoers can glimpse the steel skeleton of the elephants. Nearby, a genie drifting out of her bottle dominates the scene. She, too, once moved, spinning 180 degrees in either direction. Behind the

ginormous genie perches a colossal bald eagle constructed of coffee grounds, coconut husks, pampas grass and dried magnolia leaves. Many of the floats also feature one very important building material: glitter. One example of the profuse use of glitter is an immense pirate ship, whose first life was actually as Christopher Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, in a Thanksgiving parade. It later transformed into a pirate ship when Disney approached Hargrove about using it to promote “Pirates of the Caribbean.” 

Something For Everyone

Regardless of age or interests, everyone is sure to find something that delights them in this museum. If not the massive genie, perhaps the train car, inside of which children and children at heart can play, their faces popping up in the boxcar windows now and again. A sign near the float describes it as a “reproduction of the steam locomotives that carried Americans westward.” The float earned top honors in the 1994 Rose Parade. It enjoyed a second run in 1997, when it appeared in President Clinton’s

Inaugural Parade, as well as in three Thanksgiving Day parades. If trains don’t interest, maybe the Dixieland Band float will, not just because visitors can press a button and watch its larger-than-life pelican musicians move, but also because they can sit in the driver’s seat. Signage explains that when the float made its debut in the 1993 Presidential Inaugural Parade, it carried along with it a member of Elvis Presley’s original band. For those who favor fairytales, one fanciful float depicts Cinderella’s carriage, right down to the single glass slipper. No detail seems to have been too small for Hargrove to notice and incorporate.

Not a single visitor is likely to leave American Celebration on Parade disappointed, but they are likely to leave impressed and inspired. The museum is a wonder of whimsy and nostalgia, a testament to what one can do with a little imagination, a little ingenuity and a lot of glitter.

 For more, visit shenandoahcaverns.com/ american-celebration-on-parade.