By this time last year, the final event of the Willow Grove 300 celebration had wrapped up, and took its place in the history books.
In all, the celebration produced over 56 events, spanning a three-month period. According to members of the Willow Grove 300 Steering Committee, the celebration’s success was measured by the hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of people who participated with the events.
Such well-attended events included the 2,400 spectators at the May 10, 2011 US Marine Drum and Bugle, Silent Drill Team event and the 3,500 participants of the May 21, 2011 Davisville Road Block Party.
According to the late Dick Sayer, who chaired the Willow Grove 300 Steering Committee, he wanted to ensure that the Willow Grove 300 topped the highly celebrated grand spectacle of the Willow Grove 250th.
“Since we’re bigger now, and it’s 50 years later, we should do at least a month [of events],” Sayer told Patch in April, 2011.
To get a better understanding of the Willow Grove 300, and for a good excuse to explore Upper Moreland’s history, this week’s UMHA Presents takes a trip back to 1961, the year Willow Grove celebrated its 250th birthday.
The Willow Grove 250th Celebration
Inside the archive room of the Upper Moreland Historical Association (UMHA), located in the basement of the township building, sits a vast archive of newspapers. Most, if not all of the newspaper collection are of the Willow Grove Guide, which traces its roots back to 1926.
The public can review this fascinating look at journalism of yesteryear on microfiche, however several of the paper’s editions can also be seen as a .PDF. [See media gallery above for an example]
In the May 4, 1961 edition (top of the fold, four columns wide) reads the headline, “Anniversary Preparations Hit High Gear This Week”.
According to the article, the Willow Grove 250th Celebration had a week’s worth of events from May 20 – 26.
In the weeks leading to the events, celebration organizers orchestrated plans from their headquarters, above what was known as the Grove Delicatessen, located at the corner of York and Inman roads in Willow Grove (it now appears to be a kitchen and bath retail).
The headquarters stayed open from 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. throughout the month, during which the 250th Anniversary committee, led by general chairman Russel Sonneborn, planned for several events:
- Reception for attending dignitaries
- 250th anniversary ball at Upper Moreland High School gym (where participants dressed in early 18th-centuray costumes, and the lieutenant Governor at the time, John Morgan Davis, crowned the anniversary queen; also known as “Miss Willow Grove”).
- A concert by McGuire Air Force Base 750th U.S. Air Force Band
- Six historical pageants
- A concert by the American Legion Band, performing the music of John Philip Sousa
- A “Ladies’ Day,” which took place in Willow Grove Park, and featured a “meat cutting demonstration” by Marian Kemp of the American Stores Home Service Bureau (each of the ladies attending received recipes and a coupon for a free pound of Lancaster brand bacon).
“Week-Long Affair Gets Good Start”
The above headline in the May 25, 1961 edition of the Guide, belonged to one of several articles plastered throughout the paper’s front page. At the very top of the page was a huge double-decked headline, which reads: “Festival Pageantry Sweeps Into Willow Grove As Parade Kicks Off Anniversary Celebration”
It seems, according to the news reports, that the celebration featured a slew of parades. For the kick-off parade, May 20, 1961, one article reported 12,000 spectators lining the parade route, which went from Fitzwatertown and Easton roads to, “the junior high school and around the loop through the Grove.”
This parade featured 90 antique automobiles (some powered by steam) as well as a Historic and Patriotic parade, including special divisions of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
According to one of the Guide articles in this edition, Bob Reynolds, chairman of the 250th anniversary parade, announced that the YMCA – Indian Guides took first prize in the category of non-commercial floats; Laudenslager American Legion Post received first place in the marching unit category; and Upper Moreland Senior High School beat the American Legion Band Liberty Post 308 for first prize in the Bands division.
In the reviewing stand were dignitaries, high-ranking politicians and residents from throughout Montgomery County.
Another article further reported that the weather was “warm but pleasant and parade-perfect sunshine.”
In the same article, the reporter described the Willow Grove 250th Celebration’s first day as follows:
“It was a grand day in Willow Grove, and there are more similar days all during the week with special events scheduled for every day.”
Take a Picture, It Lasts Longer
Despite the Willow Grove 300 celebration now joining the Willow Grove 250th as a passing chapter in the history of Upper Moreland, the Willow Grove 300 Steering Committee has at least one more piece of history to impart with residents.
According to a source with the committee, a Willow Grove 300 photo book is near completion. Photos from nearly all the events will be featured in this book. The photo book is expected to be presented at the August regular meeting of the Upper Moreland Board of Commissioners.
For a full list of Patch coverage of the Willow Grove 300, click here.