Close to three quarters of a 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 them 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. 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 themed 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 mainstays 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. 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. 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.
In 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.
Between 1971-1972 many new events were added such as a 10-mile road race, an Arts & Crafts Sales, and a 10-mile bicycle race. In 1973 the addition of a large circus-type tent that hosted many events was added along with a skydiving exhibition, the Drury High School Band reunion, pancake and sausage breakfast,and more
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. Since the 80’s the parade has marched on, delighting visitors and locals alike, with a small glitch in 1987 when the parade was cancelled due to an unprecedented blizzard. Themes such as There’s No Place Like Home in the Berkshires (a nod to the Wizard of Oz) and Year of the Dog have continued to add drama to the event, inspiring fun floats and great musical arrangements by the participating bands. Then in 2020, for the second time only in the parade’s history, it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Happily, the parade returned in 2021 with renewed vigor and a shortened parade route.
Although the festival and parade have changed many times throughout the years, the original concept has remained solid: the advent of the fall foliage season is definitely a time for celebration. We look forward to keeping this tradition in the Berkshires going in 2023 and for years to come.
Learn about the Fall Foliage Festival and Parade Themes and Grand Marshals over the years.
Return to the Fall Foliage Parade.