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Sharing memories of previous Vigilante Day parades

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Posted at 3:45 PM, Apr 30, 2024

HELENA — Each year the Vigilante Day Parade sees the specters of the past return to Last Chance Gulch, stirring the memories of those who took part in the now century-old tradition.

From political leaders to newscast anchors, those who participated in the Vigilante Day Parade over the past century have similar stories to share.

Steve Bullock - Former Governor of Montana

Helena taproom owner and 24th governor of Montana Steve Bullock recalls his time working on floats.

“I think back the 40 years ago when I graduated and it was such a magical time,” Bullock told MTN. “I mean we took writing reports seriously. You’d have the smart people writing the reports. You’d have the folks that knew how to do construction work. Take two full days off, build incredible floats and it was just a celebration for us of community, but also tied into the history of our state.”

(Watch: Vigilante Parade connects generations in Helena)

Vigilante Day Parade connects generations in Helena

Montana’s former governor worked on an award-winning float about the challenges of Montana pioneers. However, he notes that the safety restrictions were a little more lenient when he was attending Helena High.

“We got up really early in the morning and got a bunch of snow from MacDonald Pass for authenticity,” recalled Bullock. “One of my classmates may or may not have been shooting a gun with blanks in it which can no longer be done. We might have had a fire on that float, which can no longer be done. Might have even had a dead deer that was found as roadkill for authenticity.”

Steve Bullock

For Bullock, his favorite floats will always be the ones his kids rode on.

“It was so fun listening to them get ready to do the float and actually seeing them come down Last Chance Gulch, thinking that those were the same steps and many of the same experiences that I had years before,” noted Bullock.

Christi Jacobsen - Montana Secretary of State

“Vigilante Day Parade is just a huge tradition,” Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen told MTN.

Jacobsen graduated from Capital High School in 1993 and rode her horse in the parade her freshman year.

Picture of Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen riding on her horse in the parade
Picture of Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen riding on her horse in the parade

“It was an awesome day. I was a little nervous when we were riding her. The crowd gets closer as the parade gets closer to the library and she started to do the side walk and I was waiting for her to bolt, but she never did. It was just so much fun and a great memory,” recalled Jacobsen.

Jacobsen was a Bruin Cadet and marched with the band her sophomore and junior years. Her senior year she worked and rode on a float.

Christi Jacobsen

Once her children got to high school, Jacobsen got to see them participate in the same tradition she did as a teen

“Yeah just a great tradition, I was in the parade and then to have our kids be in the parade and watch when they were growing up is a special day,” said Jacobsen.

Brianne Harrington - The Painted Pot

The Painted Pot opened its Last Chance Gulch location on Vigilante Day. Owner of the Painted Pot and Business Improvement District board member Brianne Harrington knows just how impactful the parade is to the community.

“It’s massive,” said Harrington. “It literally takes over our entire downtown for at least three to four hours.”

A Helena High graduate, Harrington worked on a float with her best friend choosing to represent a Helena legacy.

Brianne Harrington

“My best friend in high school, her grandfather opened Hap’s Bar so we recreated Hap’s Bar,” Harrington told MTN. “And we were a bunch of slackers so our float did not win any awards and it was very hap haphazardly put together.”

Harrington also had the opportunity to see kids who had come into the Painted Pot for camps grow up and participate in the yearly tradition when they got to high school.

“For the past 14 years we’ve been downtown there have been some very impressive floats that go by,” Harrington said. “It’s been cool to see small kids that came in first grade to summer camp and are now building floats. And I get to wave at them as they go past, it’s pretty cool.”

(Watch: Past Vigilante Day participants share memories of the parade)

Past Vigilante Day Parade participants remember past floats

Steve Fitzpatrick - Montana Senate Majority Leader

A common memory of past participants is good times with friends, as Montana Senate Majority leader Steve Fitzpatrick recalls.

Steve Fitzpatrick

“Well, I think it was just fun. I mean you got to get out of school for I think two days. Get together with your friends and put together a float,” said Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick’s family is from the Anaconda area which inspired one of the floats he worked on.

Vigilante Day float Steve Fitzpatrick and his brother worked on
Vigilante Day float Steve Fitzpatrick and his brother worked on

“Our 1997 float was called ‘Anaconda Old Works Now and Then… As I think back on it I that day I think we would work on the float, play some basketball, work on the float. I think my brother actually bore the brunt of the work that day because he ended up building most of the float,” recalled Fitzpatrick with a chuckle.

Tim McGonigal - Montana Television Network Anchor

The parade, by its nature, connects generations. Such was the case with MTN Anchor Tim McGonigal.

Tim McGonigal

“My senior year I had a friend whose dad had an old firetruck and our float that year was the 1932 Helena High Football Championship team. Which to this day is still the last time Helena High won the championship,” McGonigal said. “It was a fun float because the fire truck made the whole thing and we found some old clothes and that was probably my best memory of it.”

Vigilante Day float Tim McGonigal rode on
Vigilante Day float Tim McGonigal rode on.

While there are a fair number of repeat themes, McGonigal noted every year there are always some kids that go all out.

“There were always a lot of good floats. There was always someone who really went full bore on and it was like okay that one is going to win,” said McGonigal.

Steve Thennis - Helena High Principal 

“At the high school, I’ve been here 32 years,” Helena High Principal Steve Thennis told MTN. “32 years' worth of flour fights and log cabins. And then I also was a student way back in the day at Capital High School and participated all four years.”

Steve Thennis Helena High Principal

Thennis says the Vigilante Day Parade may not be the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or the Rose Bowl Parade, but it means a lot to Helena and connects generations.

“Hopefully [the students] are connecting with the history of our community, connecting with one another, connecting with the people in our community,” said Thennis.

Gary Parry - Montana Legislature Representative 

Montana Legislature Representative Gary Parry was one of the students who aimed high when participating.

“We went down to Bozeman and actually got the plans of the stagecoaches that were used on the Bozeman trail,” Parry told MTN. “We took one by twos and put them in a well to get them wet and frame them up.”

Rep. Gary Parry

Like many Vigilante Day Parade participants, work from Parry and his friends on their float needed some adjustments before the parade.

“The fun thing about that was the night before the parade we decided to take the stagecoach out for a test run and it fell down,” recalled Parry with a smile. “It was fun, you spent the week doing it and had a great time with your friends and you had an opportunity to look into doing things that were part of the history of Montana.”

Carlee Haynes - Helena High Class of 1959

Helena High Class of 1959 graduate Carlee Haynes said some of her fondest memories from high school were working on the parade with friends.

Carlee Haynes

“Oh, it’s just really lots of fun. All the kids would get together and they all, lot of times, we would go out to the kids that lived on a farm or something,” recalled Haynes. “So we would have a bigger place to work on the floats. But a couple times we just worked on our driveway on 5th Avenue. And everyone just came together and had a good time and it was just a lot of fun.”

Haynes said her favorite float she worked on was one that depicted the Lewis and Clark expedition.

John Riley - The person writing this article

I graduated from Helena High in 2006 and have great memories of working on floats with friends… and promptly goofing off as soon as we got done.

I didn’t get to ride on the floats though as I marched all four years in Mr. Loveridge’s band playing trumpet.

John Riley marching with Helena High Band in Vigilante Day Parade
John Riley marching with Helena High Band in Vigilante Day Parade

Learn more about the history of the Vigilante Day Parade.