Students work to breathe fresh life into Vigilante Day Parade

Students work to breathe fresh life into Vigilante Day Parade
Posted at 9:55 AM, May 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-02 18:44:02-04

HELENA — The 100th Anniversary of the Vigilante Day Parade is this Friday, May 3. According to Helena Public School, 99 floats are under construction with the celebration starting at 12:00 p.m. on Friday. Thanks to the work of student journalists, the crowds may see some new float themes this year.

Over the last hundred years, countless floats have made their way through Last Chance Gulch for the Vigilante Day Parade. Although the final designs vary, there are a fair number of repeat themes over the years as Helena High Principal Steve Thennis can attest.

“At the high school I’ve been here 32 years,” Thennis explained. “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.”

(2024 Vigilante Day Parade Route)

2024 Vigilante Day Parade Route

Students submit an essay about their float to participate, and the school administration approves every entry before being given the green light.

In the case of floats depicting Native Americans, students work with an Indian Education for All adviser and then the float will need final approval from the superintendent.

“We have the categories and anything outside of the categories has to have special approval from us or in some cases the superintendent. But the kids are welcome to do their own research and that’s what we’re hoping, they’re looking into the history of this historic place,” said Thennis.

Student reporters at Helena High

In an effort to breathe some fresh life into the century-old tradition, the journalism students of Helena High worked with the Montana Historical Society and conducted their own research to find new themes that hadn’t been done.

“There’s just so much rich history in these different areas of Helena that without researching we know nothing about, my generation knows nothing about so helping to convey this information to the masses is incredibly important and special,” Helena High student William Eaton told MTN.

The student newspaper The Nugget, which is also Montana’s oldest high school paper, ran stories about the history of Vigilante Day. Part of their coverage included float suggestions of topics that hadn’t been made in the past such as the Marlow Theater and L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology and former Helena High student.

L. Ron Hubbard attending Helena High School
L. Ron Hubbard attending Helena High School

Flyers were also put out around the school with a QR code that students could scan for more ideas.

The staff of the Nugget told MTN they learned a ton about their hometown when writing the articles they weren’t aware of.

“Like in Reader’s Alley I didn’t know it was originally Cutler Street,” said Helena High student Gabe King. “Or just generally how the Chinese have influenced a lot of culture and architecture here Helena and all over the state. So it’s kind of interesting to start looking at how these groups spring up and then how these buildings and places have endured throughout Montana's history.”

Mural honoring the historic Chinese community of Helena
Mural honoring the historic Chinese community of Helena

The Nugget’s coverage of Vigilante Day will continue with more in-depth coverage from Eaton who has been reaching out to community members.

“I’ve been reaching out to the residents at the Touchmark nursing community. Some residents participated on floats in the 1950s and won awards for their work on it,” Eaton said. “It’s an entirely different perspective to hear these things firsthand.”

The legacy of Vigilante Day in Helena is much like the parade itself, with each student building upon what came before and adding to the grandeur of it all.

The Helena School District is still in need of donations for prizes and float supply expenses for the students.

Monetary donations can be made online here.

People can drop off gift cards and merchandise donations appropriate for high school students at either Helena High or Capital High.

The prizes for the winning floats come completely from community donations.

Learn more about the history of the Vigilante Day Parade.

Past Vigilante Day participants share memories of the parade