Local parade celebrates 50 years

LUKE HOLLISTER | Daily Evergreen file
Thousands of people attend the Johnson Parade each Fourth of July to witness the 50-year-old, small-town tradition.

CODY COTTIER, Evergreen news editor

The most prominent features of Johnson are the grain elevators at either end of its main street, which stretches perhaps four blocks. Fewer than 100 people live in this unincorporated town, nestled among wheat fields a mile off Highway 195, just south of Pullman.

But one day each year, thousands flock to watch a kaleidoscopic procession of floats, performers and oddities as they promenade from one end of town to the other and back again to celebrate the Fourth of July.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Johnson Parade, a celebration that has expanded far out of proportion to its location. Chris Lynch and her siblings, then the Druffel kids, founded the event as children growing up in the town. She and her family remain the closest thing to parade authorities.

“As it’s grown, there’ll be people that we have no idea who they are or why they’re in the Johnson parade,” Lynch said. “But if you are there at 10 o’ clock on the Fourth of July morning and you have a good time, you’re welcome to join us.”

Birth of a tradition

Lynch, along with her three sisters and two brothers, spent the morning of July 4, 1967, whining about boredom.

She recalled her mother’s response: “Well, why don’t you have a parade?”

They dressed as the Spirit of ’76.

Sister Claire, after a year of flute, could play “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Brother Drew carried the flag and whistle. They found a pair of cymbals and fashioned a drum from an ice cream carton.

“By the time 7 or 8 o’ clock in the morning rolled around,” Lynch said, “we marched around Johnson and woke everybody up.”

She said they then spent the rest of the day laughing about their parade and saying they ought to do it again next year.

“And so we did,” Lynch said.

In 1968, a neighbor boy, with his bicycle, joined the Druffel kids. They invited family to following parades, and it grew steadily over two decades. Since about the 20th year, Lynch said attendance has always been at least a couple thousand.

The ensemble has grown more diverse, as well. A band of perhaps two dozen Johnson residents, a group of bagpipers, a troop of Boy Scouts. Chuck “Bobo” Brayton, former WSU baseball head coach, once brought his entire team. It would not be unusual to see a Batmobile or a homemade Ferris wheel.

Kathy Wolf, another of the original Druffel sisters, and her husband, Dan, feel that throughout the parade’s rise, it has resisted commercial influence and refused to sell out.

Politicians often have floats, but they keep them all together “to cancel them out.” Queens and princesses of nearby towns also join, but Kathy said they are more likely to show up on four-wheelers without their stately attire.

“It just kind of has a flavor of ‘stay real,’ ” she said.

“That’s what it is,” Dan agreed. “It’s just real.”

CODY COTTIER | The Daily Evergreen
Kathy Wolf, one of the original Druffel kids who founded the Johnson Parade, and her husband Dan look through memorabilia from last year’s parade.

‘Homemade fun’

Alfred “Fritz” Druffel, the father of the original Druffel children, was one of the main creative forces behind the parade in its early years. But, as the Druffel kids grew and expanded the family, they took on a larger role.

Two sides of the family pick a new theme each year, like Star Wars, circus or Christmas in July, complete with fruit cake. This year, in addition to red, white and blue, there will be “gold everywhere” to celebrate the 50th anniversary.

“We’ve pretty much covered the gamut,” Dan said.

Kathy and Dan have worked to maintain what they love most about the parade: its spontaneity and originality. Kathy’s brothers and Dan have created several floats, including the breakaway car, one of the event’s signature sights since the 1980s.

“There were a few beers involved,” Dan said.

The rainbow-colored vehicle “breaks” in two, mid-parade, and the tail end whips around and continues driving, to the surprise of first-time onlookers. Each year they also bring out the mousetrap, a Rube Goldberg machine Alfred built, and a custom train in which the Druffels bring up the rear.

“It was always just homemade fun,” Kathy said.

“It’s really hard to explain what the heck goes on,” Dan added. “You just gotta be there.”

LUKE HOLLISTER | Daily Evergreen file
Longtime residents and visitors from afar gather on the Fourth of July in Johnson each year, where homemade floats, diverse performers and various wacky sights parade up and down the small town.

50 years and counting

The parade’s remaining founders are in their 60s and 70s, but the parade itself may still be in its youth. The family has grown immensely, and though the elders don’t want to force expectations on the younger generations, many are already heavily involved. Lynch noted that one of her nieces is currently pregnant.

“I’m sure that that little one will be in the parade someday,” she said.

Besides, the event has taken on a life of its own. Lynch noted that many people and groups would likely show up whether her relatives did or not. One color guard has performed for 20 years, she said, and “I wouldn’t even know how to get ahold of [them] to tell them it wasn’t happening.”

The fire department provides breakfast at the schoolhouse, where the parade gathers at 10 a.m. Nearby businesses donate money for portable toilets. Locals mow their pastures to make space for parking. The tradition is established, and the community supports it.

Whatever its future, the Johnson Parade has for decades been a place to celebrate — both for newcomers who witness the antics for the first time, and for those to whom it is a family reunion, a chance to catch up and revisit the past.

“There are a lot of memories, and the sad part is we don’t remember them,” Dan said with a boisterous laugh.

He and Kathy smiled for a moment, reminiscing.

“Just come see it,” Dan said. “Come see it to believe it.”