From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:
Remember This . . . Community Night Has A Long History!
Did you know that our RotaryFest celebration can trace its beginning back to the early part of the twentieth century?
In 1922, the newly formed Rotary Club wanted to raise money to purchase a car for the city’s public health nurse, Miss Bertha Miller. At the time, the town was experiencing a high infant mortality rate (with 102 children dying under the age of one in 1921) and it was felt that if the public health nurse had a vehicle to use, she would be able to visit more families and provide medical advice that would in turn lower these rates.
Sault Star publisher, Mr. James W. Curran had just returned from visiting Orillia, Ontario and had witnessed a community parade so he came home and wrote an editorial for the newspaper in support of the idea of having a community party. After some discussion it was proposed that the Rotary Club host a party for the community to raise the required funds for the new car.
The Rotary Club members began making plans and promoting this very special event. The first Community Night was a joint event between the Ontario and Michigan ‘Saults’ and was held on September 23, 1922 with close to 7,000 people lining Queen Street to watch the parade. About 2,500 visitors from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan crossed the river on the ferry to join in on the celebration. People were encouraged in dress in costume so that they could promenade down Queen Street. Those who chose not to dress in costume would be fined 25 cents as a contribution to the ‘Babies Car Fund’.
According to a Sault Star article the parade included about “1,000 costumed people, five local bands, an 18-month-old ‘Queen of the Soo’ and one parade-marshal astride a high-stepping white horse.”
Captain Fred Buchanan led the torchlight parade and it was reported that Mrs. J.W. Curran, holding her baby daughter Marianne, was the Queen of Community Night and rode on a dray pulled by a corps of Navy League boys using decorated ropes!
When the parade ended the crowds of spectators joined in dancing, singing, boxing and playing various games on Brock Street until late into the night. The party was so successful that the Rotary Club raised enough money to buy the car for the public health nurse, Miss Miller. The Model-T coupe had a Rotary emblem on its side door and was a familiar sight on the streets for many years.
Due to the success of the first Community Night, the Rotary Club immediately determined that they would make it an annual event. Beginning in 1923, they directed that all proceeds from the night would go to support Crippled Children’s work. In 1925, a motion put forward by Mr. Curran and George Cowie introduced the idea that club members would sell tickets for a car that would then be raffled off on the big night. The success of this venture meant that another tradition was established as part of Community Night.
People looked forward to the variety of entertainment each year. In 1923, a float that would become the most remembered float for many years featured Harry Lyons riding in a Roman chariot as ‘Ben Hur’ and surrounded by gladiators played by Sol Friedman, Bill Lyons, Roy Blaney and Babe Donnelly. The gladiator’s shields were actually the tops of wash boilers! A favourite band in the early years was the famous Kazoo Band, who aimed to keep the crowds laughing throughout their entire performance.
Community Night was moved to the last Wednesday of July and it became the highlight of the summer for the entire community. In 1940, a $1,000 war bond was offered as the grand prize in place of the usual car and it was decided that 50 per cent of the proceeds would go to the war effort. In 1951 decorated floats became a regular part of the parade and gross receipts exceeded $20,000 for the first time.
Community Night kept changing to meet the needs of the city and it eventually transitioned into Community Day with the parade held at 1 p.m. The afternoon and evening were filled with carnival rides and games for children and adults too. More recently, the Community Day has become RotaryFest which extends over several days, beginning with the parade at 11 a.m. and continues to include the music, food and other activities that we have become familiar with today. However the earliest traditions – supporting Crippled Children and raffling off vehicles has remained from the earliest days.
RotaryFest has now become a festival that lasts for 3 or 4 days.
Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.