JOHNSON COUNTY– Thanks to the commitment of one area neighborhood, a patriotic tradition continues.
Residents of the Hickory Heights development, situated off Lake Manor Road between the communities of Solon, Shueyville and North Liberty, have celebrated the July 4th holiday for 10 years now, in much the same fashion as thousands of small communities across the country; with a parade featuring color guards, fire trucks, decorated vehicles, and horses adored in red, white and blue finery bringing up the rear, followed by family-friendly cookouts and even live music to entertain the crowds.
The unique difference is, this decade-old celebration was conceived, organized and orchestrated, from its beginning, by kids.
The idea for the original Hickory Heights Fourth of July parade was developed in 2004 by Andrea Traeger, then 10 years old. With help from her 12-year-old friend Emily Janacek, the two young girls managed to put together a nice little parade, inviting all their neighbors to dress in red, white and blue, dude up their animals or bicycles, decorate their four-wheelers, mowers or motorcycles, and come out to be part of the parade and enjoy ice cream afterward. To encourage participation, the girls came up with prize categories for those who entered, and assembled a panel of judges to determine winners in each category. In true American spirit, everybody won something, even if it was just a participation ribbon.
Eventually, the event grew to include local American Legions, area fire departments, Shriners and other organizations to fill the gaps between streamer-laden bicycles, bedecked horses, the occasional patriotic pooch and spruced-up vintage cars. Just like parades in larger venues, a flag-bearing color guard would lead the procession through spectators who lined the route, adults in camp chairs and mini-swarms of young children with grocery bags waiting for candy to rain upon them.
And, like Independence Day gatherings all over, spectators were invited to gather on their neighbor’s lawn to enjoy grilled burgers and bratwursts while the kids devour their candy deluge and chase each other barefoot in the grass. Kids’ activities were added. This year, Solon Community School District board member Lianne Westcot hosted an art table.
“People who come year after year always say they like to come because it’s such a nice, friendly neighborhood,” said Lianne.
The parade grew successful enough to count an annual average of more than 30 entries, and 10 years later, the parade marches on.
A small cloud drifted over briefly as Andrea Traeger became more involved in college, summer employment and the rodeo circuit. Andrea and her parents, Lori and Bob Traeger, felt it was time for their family to step out of the main coordinating role. Fortunately, Madi Westcot, a junior at Solon High School, snatched up the star-spangled mantle and stepped right in.
“Madi didn’t want the community tradition to die and said that she would take the lead with guidance,” said Lori Traeger. “We met on several occasions to plan the parade and divide up responsibilities, and she really did a beautiful job of taking on the main role.”
“I have been to the parade every year since I was little,” said Madi. “When I heard it might not continue, it made me sad, so I figured I would help to carry on the tradition.”
Madi recruited volunteers to help call food vendors and organizations, prepare the fliers and ready the materials necessary for judging entries and awarding prizes.
As in the past, everybody won something.
“We want people to feel proud of the energy and work they put into their entries,” said Madi. “It’s especially nice for the younger kids, because they feel like they’ve accomplished something.”
Another facet of the celebration is annual donations to local nonprofits. Neighbors take up collections to contribute to different groups who participate in the parade. This year, the Fairfax American Legion Color Guard, the Swisher (Jefferson-Monroe Township) Fire Department, the Kaaba Shriners and musical guests Psalm 151 each received a check for $100 to benefit their respective organizations.
While presenting the groups with their donation checks and the entrants with their trophies and ribbons of recognition, Lori Traeger– mother of Andrea and loyal backer of the patriotic picnic since it started with her own daughter 10 parades ago– thanked everyone for coming.
“It makes it a joy to see everybody who comes out in support of friends and neighborhood and community,” said Lori.
“I’m very glad we had it,” she said. “I am happy with the outcome. We had a lot of new entries this year. I hope next year is as successful. It’s nice to celebrate freedom on the Fourth of July.”