July 4, 2017 – West Bend, WI – The sun is shining on the chairs lined up along Wagner Lane and Kenny Drive, and excitement thrums through the late morning air. Red, white, and blue are the predominant colors against the greens of trees and grass and the bright spots of flowers along the roadways. There is going to be a parade!
Twenty-two years ago, neighborly conversations got this July 4th parade started and the annual informal event has evolved into a celebration of community spirit and national pride. There are no committee meetings because there is no planning committee – Ken Wahouske posts the invitation on the Kenny Drive signpost, neighbors tell neighbors, families plan their entries, and by 12:30PM on July 4, the parade steps off to cheers and red-white-and-blue glory. “I hang the sign on the corner,” said Wahouske, “and everyone just goes with it. It’s the people on the road who make the parade. They look forward to it and really enjoy it.”
Photo, 1995 Kenny Drive/Wagner Lane Parade. From left: Sam Lathers, Megan (DeRuyter) Heeter, Jake Lathers, Al Wisnefske, Matt Wisnefske, little girl with braid Kelly Koehn, Lauren Lathers, Jenna Olson, Emma DeRuyter, Aaron DeRuyter.
In 1995, Mike & Heidi Wisnefske and their friends and family, Peter & Cathy Koehn, Tom & Susie Lathers, Kurt & Christine DeRuyter, Jackie & Chris Olson, and Dan Schwinn decided that a neighborhood 4th of July parade would be fun. Heidi Wisnefske remembers the very first parade: “On a complete whim, we put the kids in the back of Dan’s truck, equipped with wooden spoons, pots and pans and flags, and proceeded to our parade route of Kenny Drive and down Wagner Lane. The truck was followed by a lawn tractor pulling a row boat which contained some of the adults and of course a boom box!”
By 1997 there were more neighborhood discussions. Mark Schultz and Ken Wahouske decided to continue the tradition, the event became a garden tractor parade, and every year since then it has taken on a life of its own. A hand-cranked siren starts the parade; one year there was a fly-over of a stunt plane, another year a 1979 vintage Pierce fire truck made the tight turn at the end of the lane. Mike Kugler appeared as George Washington and held an audience of adults and children spell-bound for nearly 45 minutes as he proclaimed a dissertation on the founding of the country. There are vintage cars, vintage tractors, lawn tractors, strollers, bicycles, and floats. One of the most spectacular and memorable floats was the huge eagle with the eyes that lit up, created in 2002 by Alyson Kay in response to the 9/11 tragedy. The eagle held a life-sized doll representing Osama Bin Ladin and proclaimed, “Don’t Mess with the US.”
“We involve family and friends from here and from far away.” explains Wahouske. “Not every kid gets the chance to be in a parade, but here they can be involved with the creation of a float or decorating a bicycle. They can be in our parade and can throw candy at the neighbors and have a great time celebrating what our country is all about.” Everyone lines up at the north end of Wagner Lane, and they move to Paradise Drive, up Kenny Drive, to the turnaround and then they march back, peeling off at driveways along the way until everyone is back home for an after-parade party. There are usually more people in the parade than watching it, but that’s half the fun!
Highlights of this year’s parade included an Eagle Scout color guard with brothers Jason and Ben Nowotny, the sobering Heros on the Wall float honoring fallen local servicemen from the Vietnam War, vintage cars, and three vintage tractors driven by brothers Daniel, David, and Dennis Wagner, whose great-grandfather owned the land that has become Wagner Drive. Another beautiful commemorative float was created by Alyson Kay, this time to honor the husband of her best friend who has been deployed to Syria. Kids rode on floats, walked dogs, rode bicycles, and threw candy at the neighbors.
Al Rudnitzke and his wife, Joan, offered free Bloody Marys to adults along the route – a treat that they have contributed for several years. “We joke that these are Bloody Marys to forget the Bloody British,” said Al Rudnitzke. “We distributed about 140 of the drinks today; we decided that it would be fun to include a treat for the adults – something unique to this parade. But there is more to it than that. This is a grand parade and it is so because everyone does just a little bit to contribute to the fun of the day. When everyone gives a little the end result can be a wonderful thing, and that is a lesson for life as well.”
So the parade is finished. The kids have gone home and everyone is relaxing and enjoying time at the Lake with family and friends. One thing is certain, however – that little slice of Americana in the form of a neighborhood parade has once again brought people together to celebrate our country with a spirit of community, cooperation and national pride.