Clown Band members share feelings of missing the Fourth.

July 4, 2020

George C. Wilson and his son, George Grady, walk the parade route and stop in front of the mural depicting Big George.

Clown Band members share feelings of missing the Fourth.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief, Life member, Scottville Clown Band

LUDINGTON — Fourth of July, Independence Day. It’s a day of tradition for many Americans. Those of us who live or visit Mason County often have the tradition of lining up along Ludington Avenue to watch the Ludington Area Jaycees Freedom Festival Grand Parade and then, after enjoying a cookout with family and friends, heading to the lakeshore to watch the fireworks display. 

For a certain group of us, our Fourth of July tradition dates back over eight decades.

We are part of a group who are the self-appointed ambassadors of our little city 10 miles to the east of Ludington. We dress up in crazy costumes — a tradition that goes back to 1903 — and we entertain the crowds with our music. We are the Scottville Clown Band. 

This year, COVID-19 has caused the cancellation of the Ludington Area Jaycees Freedom Festival (the official name of the Ludington July 4 celebration). It will be the first time since 1947 that the Clown Band has not marched the Independence Day parade on Ludington Avenue. 

Clown Band street leader George C. Wilson decided not to break tradition, however. This morning, he and his son, George Grady, walked the parade route, plungers in hand, from Madison Street to Lakeshore Drive. George C. joined the band in 1975. He grew up in the band, which his father, “Big George” Wilson led since 1947 (with the exception of a few years in the Air Force during the Korean War). George C. started leading the band about 15 years ago when his dad was unable to. Big George passed away in 2012. Today, Grady carried his grandfather’s plunger.

“The Fourth of July was my father’s favorite holiday, His favorite parade,” George C. said. “In 2011 he mustered enough strength to lead the band for a few blocks in downtown Ludington. I gladly stepped aside and watched. His pride radiated from him. It was his last Fourth of July. It is one of my fondest memories of him and of the Scottville Clown Band.

“Someone named George Wilson has walked that street on the Fourth for well over a half century,” George C. said. “I wanted to keep the tradition going, even though there wasn’t going to be a band behind me.” 

The last time the Clown Band did not perform in the Independence Day parade in Ludington was World War II. The band had split up when the war broke up. As life began getting back to normal in the U.S., celebrations began again. In the fall of 1947, Scottville merchant Raymond Schulte re-organized the band in time for the Scottville Harvest Festival. That next year, the band started to book some additional gigs, including the Fourth of July in Ludington. Last year was 71 years of the Clown Band consecutively ending the Ludington July 4 parade.

The Fourth of July is often the highlight for many members of the Clown Band. It is the only day of the year the band performs two parades, starting in the morning at the National Forest Festival Parade in downtown Manistee and then the afternoon in Ludington. Between the two parades the band members and their families gather for lunch. The band then congregates in various places along the first southern block of Madison Street between Ludington Avenue and Loomis Street. 

There is absolutely nothing that compares to the feeling you get when the drum section rolls off at the corner of Madison and Loomis streets with the band’s theme song, “Basin Street Blues,” and we march one block and turn that corner west on Ludington Avenue. It is a sea of people who stand, cheer, wave, dance, and most importantly, smile. It is America at its best. 

The Ludington Area Jaycees Freedom Festival Grand Parade represents everything that is good about our community, our state, and our country. It is honor, pride and tradition. It is fun. For over three decades I see the same families and individuals in their favorite spot along the parade route. I can count on seeing former high school classmates, in that same spot every year. 

“It just doesn’t get any better marching down Ludington Avenue with my son, son-in-law, and oldest grandson,” said drummer John Fort of Fountain. “I am looking forward to next year when a second grandson joins,” 

It is hot at the corner of Ludington Avenue and Madison Street. As you march towards the lakeshore, the breeze picks up softly. The heavy brass sound of the Clown Band echoes downtown as the band approaches Harrison Street. 

“This marks my 47th year in the band,” said drummer Don Klemm of Pere Marquette Township (and son-in-law of Big George). “I missed two parades due to sickness/medical reasons. There’s nothing like turning the corner to “Basin Street Blues” and watching the crowd’s reaction.”

The crowd changes, still fun, but just a slightly different audience. Then, the parade route slowly declines past Rath Avenue — the Todd Reed picture spot, that famous scene of the street leader, George C. Wilson (carrying on the tradition of his dad, “Big George” Wilson) holding the plunger high with the trombone section, three rows deep, blaring (and I say that in the most respectable way possible) behind him. 

The parade narrows as the boulevard begins at William Street in front of House of Flavors. From there, the crowd is tighter, closer. It’s a little more intimate and the momentum builds again. The band finally stops past Park Street, in front of the Ludington Beach House (what those in the band still call the Miller Motel). 

There, many in the band disperse, going on to enjoy the rest of the holiday with their families. After-all, many of them started the day with the morning parade at the Manistee National Forest Festival. A group remains and puts on a 20 minute show on the hill in front of the hotel, with a crowd that stretches out across the boulevard. From there, the remaining brave souls head to the American Legion for a show there. 

“This would have been my 44th year marching the Freedom Festival,” said trombonist and street leader David Ladd of Fruitport. “There is something about this day that is just hard to articulate. The emotions are real. This whole season has been lost by a virus and I know it is critical that we are not part in these festivals. What is real, though, is that there is a loss. The loss of not spending the day in two fun resort towns entertaining tourists and locals alike. The loss of spending the day with people who have become not just friends, but family. Yes, today just feels different.” 

As for me, this is my 34th year in the band. I have only missed one Ludington Fourth of July parade, that was in 2018 when I had a knee injury. My great joy in the parade comes from seeing all the smiling faces, especially from many friends and acquaintances. The greatest joy is seeing my two daughters’ eyes light up when they see their daddy march by them. 

Stay safe Mason County. Enjoy your Fourth of July. After all, we do live in the greatest town, the greatest state and the greatest country in the world. 

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This story is copyrighted © 2020, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

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