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Sally Keyser and Leigh Jackson wear the dresses their great-grandmother wore as grand marshall, starting in 1966.

Pawleys Island: History and nature themes garner parade trophies

The 50th annual Pawleys Island Fourth of July Parade celebrated its roots, but also remembered the things that make the island special as nearly 60 floats made their way around the island.

George Meighen, who came up with the idea while staying with family at the Cassena Inn in 1966, was the grand marshal. “Thanks, George,” read the sign on the float put together by the Howard and Bagley families. They carried plungers in honor of the baton carried in the first parade and handed the judges a gold plunger with an eagle attached to the end of the handle. The theme was “Unstoppable Since 1966.” While they knew all about the parade’s founding story, Marcel Bagley said they hadn’t met Meighen. They hoped to cross paths on the parade route.

Their efforts were noticed by the judges, who gave them the trophy for Most Enthusiastic.

Following Meighen was a float with members of the Hope and Hiott families who had been in the original parade. They carried signs copied from that first parade including one that said, "I Won’t Burn My Draft Card."

The family of Nancy Bondurant, who was the first grand marshal (also carrying a plunger), celebrated with a float packed with her family. Her great-grandaughters Sally Keyser and Leigh Jackson, wore red, while and blue cotton dresses that Miss B wore during more than two decades when she led the parade. Sally's children, the fifth generation to parade, filled the float as their grandmother, Nancy Johnston – an original participant – waved a plunger. Their float won an Honorable Mention.

David Lake and Lee Arthur won Best Overall for a pickup truck of cute kids with shark hats being pursued by a great white shark on a trailer. Blue and white balloons made up the foaming water in the shark’s wake. It had all the elements that make a prize-winning float: kids, flags and the threat of being eaten. With 58 floats entered in the parade, judges said it was hard to narrow the field. Mayor Bill Otis said he was pleased with the turnout, which lagged last year when the parade fell on a Saturday, the turnover day at rental properties.

Most Original went to the Willcox and Dotterer families for a tribute to Marlow’s Store, like the parade an “Oldie Goldie.” Lloyd Willcox played the late Frank Marlow with an apron, a cigar and a bald wig. It advertised an array of goods from crab steamers to Pawleys Island caviar to “the phone” that islanders used to use to keep in touch with the outside world. The former grocery store on Highway 17 is now Frank's restaurant.

Mike Britt of Columbia didn’t take credit for his family’s Most Patriotic trophy. “It usually takes me three weeks” to build a float, he said. “We did this in three and a half days.” His family rode atop a giant 50th birthday cake for the parade. His past award-winning efforts included Snoopy and his biplane. He gave his daughter credit with coming up with this year’s theme on short notice.

The Creech family of Columbia won Best Children with a trailer turned into a giant crab trap where a bunch of kids in crab hats had been lured by the promise of rubber chickens hanging on a line.

Most Humorous went to the Mitchell family for a golf cart that solved the mystery of Hillary Clinton’s email server. It was dredged up in a net behind the cart. A sign said, “Feel the Bern, Don’t Do Trump Sunscreen.” It was one of a couple of political floats. Another, featuring kids tossing candy, cited Bernie Sanders as the inspiration for redistributing candy around the island.

Best Musical, which carries the only cash prize, went to The Grey Men, a former high school band resurrected for the parade several years ago that has been a regular winner. They had a challenge from the Will Ness Band, playing a tape, and a trio of jazz musicians in a vintage pickup truck.

Honorable mentions also went to Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic (SODA) with a truck filled with sea creatures urging opposition to seismic testing for offshore oil and gas. ; the Lominack family for “Barn in the USA” featuring kids – and a couple of adults, in animal masks on a fenced in trailer; the Joseph family for “Pawleys Island Natural Convention” with candidates like Freddy the Flounder (“Make Pawleys Creek Great Again”) vying for support from delegates representing the North End, South End and Mid Island; the deHaas family and friends with a pluff mud theme that included a mermaid, a kayaker and swimmers urging people to “Make Waves, Not War”; and the Guess House crowd for a group of little girls offering a cheeky salute to the parade’s 50th.

Pawleys Island: As parade turns 50, founder recalls its beginnings

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

JUNE 30: They gathered outside the Cassena Inn on a Monday morning before the July sun became unbearable. They had flags and some signs. Coffee cans served as drums.

There might have been 20, maybe 25. Mostly kids, but some adults. They set off down Pawleys Island with a red Ford Galaxy convertible, blazing a trail that generations have followed for 50 years.

George Meighen was out in front carrying a plunger as his baton. “I was leading the parade. I was trying to keep that group together,” he recalled this week from his home in Birmingham, Ala. “I don’t know how far we got.” Perhaps as far as the chapel.

He will be back next week as the grand marshal for the 50th Pawleys Island Fourth of July Parade. It will be his third parade. He was also the grand marshal in 1995.

From what he remembers as a “rag tag” group, the parade has grown to where floats lining up fill the South Causeway to the island and thousands of vacationers and day visitors pack the roadsides to watch.

“I had no idea it would grow to this proportion,” Meighen said. “I love America, I love the red, white and blue. It’s a celebration of our independence. I’m happy to have been a part of it.”

Several of the other original cast members from the first Pawleys Island parade will return for the 50th anniversary. They are descendants of the Cassena Inn’s owners and see this reunion as a way to remember that Pawleys Island institution, which was destroyed by fire 30 years ago. “We’re giving a shout-out to the Cassena Inn,” said Jay Hope, who was 8 when the parade began. “The inns are a vanishing part of Pawleys.”

It was love that brought Meighen, a Pittsburgh native and a West Point graduate, to Pawleys Island. He was aide de camp to the commanding general at Fort Jackson when he started dating a Columbia girl, Anne Hiott. Anne’s mother Gladys Hiott and her friend Mena Hope bought the Cassena Inn on the island’s north end and started operations in the summer of 1954. Meighen made his first trip to the island that year. He and Anne were married in November.

“As the years went by, we were frequent visitors there,” he said, often in the off-season.

But it wasn’t until 1966 that the idea for a Fourth of July parade came to him. Meighen had been serving in the Pentagon. He wanted to go to Vietnam, but he had lost his left eye in a training accident in Ranger school soon after returning from the Korean War. Meighen, a 36-year-old lieutenant colonel, was told that he could lead any battalion in Korea after leaving the Pentagon. He had 30 days’ leave before heading to the Pacific. “We probably spent most of those 30 days on Pawleys Island,” he said.

Other friends and family were also visiting that summer. “It was the fellowship and the spirit of the Fourth of July,” Meighen said. It was also a time when protests against the Vietnam war were growing. “Vietnam was a no-no. It had people running across the border to Canada,” he said. Meighen’s son Allen carried a sign that read, “I Won’t Burn My Draft Card.” (He later served in Operation Desert Storm as a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve.)

“Patriotism runs deep in both our families,” said Jay Hope, Mena’s grandson and an Air Force veteran. He also remembered carrying the sign about draft cards – “we may have passed it around,” he said – even though he didn’t know what it meant. He remembered another sign that read, “Pawleys Remembers the Red, White &.” And one more that read, “Blue.”

Staying next door to the inn was the Wilson family from Danville, Va. Nancy Wilson had a red convertible. “Fourth of July. Red convertible,” Meighen said. He invited Wilson’s mother Nancy Bondurant to be the grand marshal. She had a red, white and blue cotton dress and a plunger, said Nancy Johnston, her granddaughter and another original participant.

Meighen remembered that they bought some paper dresses in red, white and blue. “We sweated that it was going to rain,” he said.

He called Claude Altman, the deputy sheriff, to let him know the parade was in the works. “There was very little traffic,” Meighen said. “Even on the Fourth of July, a big weekend, there were not that many people.”

Jack Wilson, 14 at the time, said they beat on pots and pans and carried streamers. He recalls marching down to Pawleys Pier, which was open to the public at the time.

Phyllis Rosen Besser is sure that the first parade went at least to the Birds Nest section on the south end where her family was renting a cottage on the creek. She was 11 at the time and remembers the honking car horn. “We remember it well because we thought this lady was crazy or drunk,” she said. The cottage didn’t have air conditioning so all the doors and windows were open.

The first parade made an impression. When Meighen got to Korea he reported to the assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. George Seignious. “Sit down, Meighen,” he said. “If you do half as good a job commanding your battalion as you do organizing parades you’re going to do well.”

It turned out that Seignious’ mother was from Kingstree and sent him a newspaper article about the parade.

Nancy Wilson started getting calls from people asking if there would be another parade, her daughter recalled. The family always spent their July on Pawleys. Her father, El, made signs. Jack put them up on the utility poles. “My mother was the driving force,” Johnston said. “It was exciting and it was fun and we had a red convertible.”

Nancy Bondurant continued to serve as the grand marshal, wearing the same dress from the inaugural parade, Johnston said. That continued until she was 96. The family continues to participate and regularly collects one of the trophies that the town started handing out in the late 1980s when it took charge of the parade.

It didn’t take long for the parade to get a following, Jack Wilson said. The first “float” was a trailer that some friends had used to haul a motorcycle to Pawleys from Virginia. Eventually boats towed on trailers became the favored ride. “That’s where you finally got people watching the parade,” he said. “When we started, everybody was in it.”

Hope and Hiott sold the Cassena Inn in 1974. “I was devastated,” Jay Hope said. “Everybody got to work at the Cassena Inn when they reached a certain age.” He was 16 when it sold. He’s been to some parades, but he said the original participants lost touch over the years.

Meighen retired from the Army in 1972 and went into banking. Nancy Boyle was his wife’s friend from childhood and they would stay with Nancy and her husband Mac at End of the Rainbow, the former All Saints summer rectory. That’s where he will spend the weekend getting ready for the 50th parade. Anne died in the early 1990s, but his son and daughter will join him. “All I’m going to do is ride and wave,” he said.

Although Pawleys Island has changed, its connections are still strong. Meighen still runs into people who are surprised that he has a connection. “I didn’t know you were in Pawleys,” they tell him. “You know, they have a parade.”

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