GREENFIELD — They still remember their first flower parade.
Starting in 1957, students walked from Harris and Weston elementary schools and St. Michael School to the Riley statue at the Hancock County Courthouse, flowers picked from Mom’s garden in hand.
This year, 60 years after the first Children’s Parade of Flowers made its way down city streets, nearly two dozen residents who once participated as students showed up, walking behind the roughly 1,200 schoolchildren taking part in the tradition.
And they remembered how it felt to be those youngsters, flora clutched in tiny hands on the way down Main Street.
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The Children’s Parade of Flowers, one of the downtown Riley Festival’s signature events, celebrate beloved Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley.
Marching up State Street toward Main Street, memories of their first flower parade came rushing back to the alumni invited to participate this year to mark the special anniversary.
They joined elementary students from all four county school districts and the Greenfield-Central Marching Cougars.
The Riley Festival Committee this year opened the parade — a longstanding tradition that invites kids to drop flowers at the foot of a statue of the poet that was funded by local schoolchildren’s donations — to the event’s alumni.
A small group jumped at the opportunity, picking flowers from home-grown gardens or quickly grabbing a small bouquet from the store, to bring to the Riley likeness.
Jeanie Foster, who attends the parade every year to photograph neighborhood kids participating, was among them.
Her first flower parade was nearly 60 years ago when she was a fourth-grader at Harris Elementary.
At that time, the Riley Festival, then called Riley Days or Sidewalk Days, wasn’t much more than neighbors setting up card tables near the Riley home to sell goods to passers-by, she and classmate Jackie Hendrix Reed remember.
When they heard this year the parade was open to anyone who had participated in the past, the women knew they wanted to join in the fun. A small group of Greenfield High School classmates made plans to attend.
As they waited near the Pennsy Trail for the parade to start, memories of past parades came flooding back.
They remember carefully plucking the flowers from Mom’s garden, wrapping the stems in aluminum foil so they’d neatly fit in the wire caging wrapped around the statue’s base to hold the handmade bouquets.
On the day of the parade, they were always giddy. Moms, dads and neighbors lined the streets, hooting and hollering as their favorite flower-bearers walked by.
The walk — less than a mile — always seemed long, though time passed quickly, the women said. Now, students are bused in from schools across the county, and they walk from the Pennsy Trail, near the Greenfield Police Department, to the courthouse.
Lezlie Gabbard Wheeler walked in the parade from first through sixth grade, and when she got to high school, she marched in the band, leading the youngsters along the path.
Reliving those memories Friday was something she won’t quickly forget, she said. The flower parade was always special — uniquely Greenfield, she said.
Riley was a celebrity during his lifetime, beloved by children who brought him flowers — the origin of the flower parade celebrated today — and families who loved the writings inspired by life in 1900s Greenfield.
Friday was one of the largest flower parades the festival has seen in years, said Riley Festival spokesperson Linda Lowe.
More than 1,200 people took part, with even more lining the streets to watch.
All four county schools were represented, with Mt. Vernon participating for the first time. In the past few years, Greenfield-Central and St. Michael schools were the only students to participate.
Last year, when Greenfield-Central’s calendar landed students on fall break during the festival, organizers opened it up to all county schools. Now, that tradition stands.
Lowe smiled as she looked out on the crowd of people lined up to march toward the courthouse.
“This is wonderful,” she said. “Look at all the energy out there.”
The Riley Festival runs through 5 p.m. Sunday. For a full event schedule, visit rileyfestival.com.
9 a.m.: Festival opens
9 a.m.: Helicopter rides at Riley Park begin
11 a.m.: Riley Festival parade kicks off at Greenfield-Central High School
4 p.m.: Ricochet Cloggers at the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts
5 p.m.: Poetry Open Mic Night at Twenty North Gallery
6 p.m.: Poetry Slam at Griggsby’s Station
9 p.m.: Festival closes
11 a.m.: Festival opens
1 p.m.: Free tours of the Riley Boyhood Home
1 p.m.: Poets at the Podium
2 p.m.: Birthday Celebration for Riley at his boyhood home and museum
5 p.m.: Festival closes