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The Helena Independent Sunday,
Vigilante Parade Was Organized to Stop Bitter Class War
Junior-Senior Class Strife Dangerous to High School Students VARIOUS MEANS OF ELIMINAT ING FAMOUS CLASS FIGHTS WERE TRIED BEFORE VIGILANTE PARADE "CLICKED"
By Mayor Albert J. Roberts, Helena High School Principal, 1907-1935
(The following history of the Vigilante parade was written by Mayor A. J. Roberts, who was high school principal when the parade was started in 1924, for the high school yearbook, The Vigilante, and is reprinted through permission of the author and Marie Marqas, year-book editor.)
MY ADMINISTRATION of the high school began in September, 1907. Like every new principal, I inherited from my predecessor, or predecessors many school traditions and activities. Some of these were excellent in character and purpose. Others were subversive to discipline, often lawless in character, and in the main hostile to the good work and reputation of the school. The most important, and probably the worst of these was the so-called "senior-junior fight."
This annual event, which injured persons, destroyed property and interrupted the work of the school three or four days each year, had its beginning,we were told, somewhere in the "Gay Nineties" or back in the days of "real sport." Each year between the 1st and 15th of May, and soon after the names of the graduating class had been officially announced, the students on arriving at school in the bright and early spring morning, would behold in great surprise and astonishment the senior banner proudly floating from the topmost tip of the old flag pole, which stood at the time between the high school and Central school buildings. This banner bore the class colors, the class numeral and the strange device "Senior."
Very few minutes were wasted. The eager, peppy and belligerent juniors called up their cohorts at once, and prepared with warlike gestures to take the senior banner down and trail it in the dust. The fight was on and it was sanguinary struggle. The battle around the flag pole became fiercer and more dangerous each succeeding year, until eventually by recommendation of the principal, the school board ordered it taken down.
The fight was then transferred to the top ofthe high school building, where the flag pole, and the two spires recently removed because of earthquake damage, were used to display the victorious banner of the triumphant class. But the fight here became, apparently, more bitter and much more dangerous. It almost took away ones breath to see a half-dozen boys creeping unsteadily along the coping of the roof, or clinging to the highest point of those slender spires, liable to fall to death at any moment.
Driven by order from the building and grounds of the high school, the fight was carried to the streets and alleys, even to the outskirts of the city. Instigated, promoted and prolonged by the old graduates of the high school, and the boys from the college, it entered its last most desperate and warlike period. Not many, of course, but a few boys each year came out of the fray with black eyes, bloody noses, teeth knocked out, faces scratched and bodies bruised, all for the honor of the "biggest and best class ever graduated from the Helena high school."
Many less harniful and better organized oontests were proposed and tried as substitutes for these lawless activities. One year a tug-0f-war, another a baseball game, a third a football game, and finally a wrestling match, which was more desperate and bloody even than the fight itself. But the classes were not satisfied with these regular sports. They were too tame and too religious for their pompous and belligerent spirits. A number of other unsatisfactory activities were inherited by the new principal.
The first of tliese was "Sneak day." Some pleasant morning, shortly afler the fight was settled, five or six boys would appear very early at school wearing low derbys with mustaches and side whiskers painted on their faces, and otherwise dressed up for a day off. These boys with many others recruited before the opening of school, tried by every means possible to persuade all other students "to sneak" for that day alleging for their excuse that they needed a day of rest alter months of hard work in the study hall and class room. Another irregular activity, but not very objectionable was "Old Clothes day" or "Hard Times day," held at the high school in the morning, followed by a "barn dance" at the gym in the alternoon. It was not held annually but once every three or four years, or when conditions appeared favorable. It was characterized mainly by wearing ragged clothes with hay and straw and alfalfa sticking out of the protruding seams and patches. Finally there was "Costume day." If I remember correctly, this was attempted only once. But it was a good stunt and in my opinion furnished fortunately the basic ideas in feature and display, for the great pageant, which was later called the "Vigilante parade." Many other new and novel ideas suggesting a pageant, pedagogic cure-alls of one kind and another came traipsing into the principal's office. During the months of February and March, 1924, several conferences of representative boys and girls from the senior and junior classes were called to consider these and many other suggestions.
There was at first much opposition among the students to any plan by which it was proposed to eliminate these old traditional activities. Even the principal himself, who was not a bad sport, seemed inclined to regard the "fun" with tolerant hesitation. Was not this the "wild and wooly west"? Was it not the "promised land" of the Indian, the road agent, the vigilante, the pioneer, the cowboy and the miner,;was it not the day of the pack-train, the stage coach, the sluice box, the saloon and gambling house, the old church and the old-time school? All of these early-day features would be incorporated in the big parade it was promised.
Finally alter much serious discussion of the situation, and other readjustments of the entire activity program of the upper-classes, it was decided to put on a big historical pageant, in which every boy and girl in High School would have an essential part. The pageant, later called The Vigilante Parade, was intended to present in the main the adventurous life and colorful customs ofthe Montana Pioneer, especially the Pioneer of "Last Chance Gulch". To the promotion, work and achievement of this program, the Senior and Junior classes gave their wholehearted support, a pledge, which to the present time has been faithfully and diligently observed.
The first Vigilante Parade was held in May, 1924. It was a great success from the start, and has grown bigger and better with each succeeding year. This parade, so little thought of at the time, and then only as a splendid substitute for several lawless activities, has more than any other institution, distinguished the city of Helena and its High School. From it also thousands of our citizens have obtained a knowledge of the life and customs, of the thrilling story of the early days in the Treasure State. Every year not only the people of Helena and of Lewis and Clark County, but people from all over the State, and from other states in the Union, eagerly attend the Vigilante Parade with greater enthusiasm and greater praise for its wonderful organization. This year we shall have with us European Royalty, Crown Prince Olaf and Crown Princess Martha of Norway. I am sure their visit to the city will be an added incentive for the students of the High School to make the parade this year the biggest and best in all its romantic history.
Albert J. Roberts, at the time mayor of Helena but for 28 years principal of Helena High School, was the man who brought the Vigilante Parade into existence. His background included Albion College, A.B., 1896; University of Halle, Germany; University of Leipzag, Germany, 1895-1897; Sorbonne, Paris, France, 1897- 1899; Teacher of History, Helena High School, 1899-1907; Principal Helena High School, 1907-1935, and President of the Montana State Teachers Association, 1912.