More than a half-century ago, the leadership of the North Adams Chamber of Commerce deemed the advent of the fall foliage season a time for celebration – given that the natural beauty of the surrounding mountain ranges drew visitors from all over the eastern United States. They decided to ask local residents to join with their many visiting friends for a little fun and merriment during the most beautiful season of the year.
When Frank Casuscelli, the driving force behind the North Adams American Legion Drum & Bugle Corps, received word that the chamber wanted to organize a celebration in 1947, he immediately contacted the rest of the members of the New York Drum and Bugle Corps Alliance to make arrangements for a street parade and drum corps competition to be held in North Adams. Prize money ($80) was offered and 10 units responded to the call. Thus, the first Fall Foliage Festival was born and with it a history of community spirit and growth that has evolved into one of the finest civic celebrations in the United States.
The festival’s first-year success did not continue, however. In 1948, without any available funding, the chamber was only able to arrange a parade that featured about 50 new trucks supplied by area dealers. It was obvious that more support was needed.
The next year it was decided that the festival would be combined with the 50th Anniversary celebration of the North Adams Elks. Over 25 area Elks groups, each with a band, marched in the parade that fall. The parade drew hundreds of appreciative spectators but the festival still had a long road ahead.
During those early years, fall promotion was a part of the chamber’s retail division program. Although many local retailers worked hard to promote the project, it lacked the sound financial support needed to attract quality musical units fit for a major parade. In 1950, $1,000 was raised and a parade with floats and a competition were both staged in October.
In 1956, with Donald Deans as the chamber’s president, the celebration began to take its present form. With Francis “Bud” Hayden and Read Barrows as co-chairman, a full week of activities were planned that included the Queen Contest and Fashion Show. Member Corps of the New York State Drum and Bugle Corps Alliance were on hand for the big parade and competition. Support for the festival broadened to include more than just retail merchants. For the first time, the event ended in the black with money to build next year’s event.
Another turning point in the festival’s history came in 1958. Harry Orr, a man who was later tabbed “Mr. Fall Foliage Festival,” entered the scene. A master at staging civic celebrations and circus events, Orr had just retired to his hometown of North Adams. That year, the celebration was co-chaired by Milton Spencer and Rene Menard and Orr learned the ropes.
In 1959, Orr and Hayden served as co-chairmen. Many new activities were added to the festival’s calendar of events, including the Festival Dance and the “Blessing of the Festival.” More professionalism was brought to the Fashion Show and to the Queen Contest, which built their reputation as quality events. The real “Orr touch” was seen in the rules and regulations, which has made the parade one of the top attractions of its kind in the country. The genius of Orr cannot go unremembered. Thus, a trophy in his memory is given annually to the float judged as the best theme entry.
The festival celebrated its 10th year as a full eight-day civic celebration in 1965. Thomas King, a longtime festival worker, was appointed as general chairman. Chamber executive Arthur Kelts served as administrator. King’s reign saw the addition of current mainstay including the Children’s Parade and the Phantom Leaf Hunt. An air show was also added that year to kick-off the week’s activities.
New events and the expansion of existing events demanded a reorganization and decentralization effort. 1966 saw the establishment of a co-chairman system to lead the festival. Joe Dolan and Mrs. Edward Buckley served as general co-chairs for the festival. King handled the parade directorship. An all-time high of 22 young women vied for the Queen’s title in 1966. Saturday became Family Fun Day with a full day of appealing activities planned. That year also saw the start of the High School Marching Band Competition.
In 1967, a window-painting competition for local youth and a teenage dance were added. A Golf Tournament and a Main Street ping-pong drop were added in 1968. Then, in 1969, Harold Philips served as Festival Chairman and new events such as the balloon race, the no-rain dance, boxing exhibition, and various musical concerts were added.
1970 co-chairs Peter Mancuso and Marcia Brennan took advantage of the new Vietnam Veterans Memorial Rink. They arranged for a hockey game and figure skating exhibition. The Fall Foliage Festival Queen, Miss Nancy Ryan, went on to enter the Miss Massachusetts Scholarship Pageant and won a scholarship award for her talent presentation.
The 1971 co-chairs Peter Mancuso and Mrs. Robert Wagner added the 10-mile Road Race and Aqua Field Events. The 1972 festival saw several innovations including the Pet Show, Air Show, Arts & Crafts Sale (held in conjunction with the Art Exhibit), and the 10-mile Bicycle Race. The Fall Foliage Festival Queen, Miss Dina Minardi, was among the 10 semi-finalists in the Miss Massachusetts pageant held in Attleboro and was awarded a scholarship.
A big change took place in 1973 with the addition of a large circus-type tent, that hosted many events. Under the direction of general chairman John “Jack” Leu, a combination arts & crafts flea market was an overwhelming success. Other new events such as a skydiving exhibition, Drury High School Band reunion, pancake and sausage breakfast, community Bingo, automobile show, beer festival, old-fashioned variety show, and a drawing for the Massachusetts lottery were added to the festival.
1980 saw the return of the Drum Corps Exhibition. After a span of more than ten years, the drum corps competition was once again presented in the weeklong celebration. The parade committee used of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Skating Rink again. Competing that year were the Citations from Burlington, the Sharpshooters from Framingham, Valley-Airs from Northbridge, the Queensmen from Woburn, and the Cavaliers from Somerville. The Drury High School band co-sponsored the event and helped provide manpower and services. Another event on Columbus Day 1980 was racing at Green Mountain.
The festival and parade have changed many times throughout the years. Yet, the original concept has remained solid: the advent of the fall foliage season is definitely a time for celebration.