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A touch of the green on St. Practice Day

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Leadville Holiday – September 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

During September in Leadville, the changing aspen leaves aren’t all that qualifies as “local color.” Another top contender is the green of the annual St. Patrick’s Day Practice Parade.

Actually, it makes perfect sense for Leadville to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in September because, come March when everyone else is wearin’ the green, we’re likely to be wearin’ the white of a major snowfall.

So at noon on Saturday, September l7, the “Cloud City” compensates for nature’s vagaries by transforming itself into the “Emerald City” in honor of this uniquely “Leadvillian” event.

A Leadville institution for the past 15 years, the St. Patrick’s Day Practice Parade was conceived by another local institution, fifth generation Leadville native Neil V. Reynolds. This lawyer, municipal court judge and Colorado Mountain College instructor came up with the idea for the parade while reminiscing about a pub he frequented during law school days, which held September corned beef and cabbage feasts as a publicity stunt in anticipation of the real holiday.

Although each March 17, in even the foulest weather, Reynolds and cronies Ed Kerrigan and Jim O’Neal — the three official members of the Greater Leadville Hibernian Mining and Marching Society — gamely stride down Leadville’s Harrison Avenue (fortified by a great deal of Irish coffee), few spectators share their enthusiasm at that time of year. Plus, as Reynolds points out, bagpipes are hard to play in the cold.

Hence the September parades held when people are out and about, and the pavement is still visible.

“Obviously, the weather’s a lot nicer here in September than in March,” Reynolds says. “The aspen leaves are at their peak, the summer activities are over, school’s back in session and people are looking for something different.”

And the St. Patrick’s Day Practice Parade definitely fills that bill.

What the parade lacks in size and reputation, it makes up for in sheer exuberance and spirit. Your eyes don’t have to be Irish to smile throughout this wacky and wonderful celebration.

The parade begins when a group of kilt-wearing, bagpipe-toting marchers appears at the top of the hill on Harrison Avenue and Ninth Street, and heads down Harrison Avenue to the strains of pipes and the beat of drums.

Leading the procession is the Greater Leadville Hibernian Mining and Marching Society, in other words, Reynolds flanked by Kerrigan and O’Neal. While Reynolds can be counted on to favor a somewhat formal, Victorian look complete with watch fob, carved walking stick, and natty derby, O’Neal and Kerrigan go heavy on the green, with Kerrigan sporting a memorable Mad Hatter style of headgear.

Behind them comes a contingent of green-clad locals, police vehicles, vintage fire trucks, and (preferably green) automobiles, maybe even a grinning, waving politician or two. Interspersed with this group are three bagpipe and drum ensembles from Denver and Fort Collins, accompanied by kilted step dancers who prance and whirl, seemingly unaffected by the thin mountain air.

The bands — the City of Denver Pipe Band and its step dancers, the Fort Collins Pipe Band, and the Pipes and Drums of the Colorado Irish, along with this year’s special addition, McTaggart’s Step Dancers (who include O’Neal’s granddaughters) — are a colorful lot. Members wear tartan plaid kilts of orange and green, yellow and black or green and gray, along with soft felt and feathered hats, bright green capes and tasseled knee socks.

The bagpipers play traditional Irish and Scottish tunes, while the drummers enhance their accompaniment with synchronized drumstick flourishes.

My favorites, though, are the stern-faced band leaders who stare straight ahead without cracking a smile, apparently oblivious to the crowds, and call commands to musicians and dancers while expertly tossing and twirling what look like oversized, fur-topped batons.

The parade continues down Harrison Avenue to Second or Third Street, depending on the whims of the leaders. Then the entire procession stops, regroups, turns around and marches back up Harrison Avenue to the courthouse, where the bands and step dancers entertain the crowd for about an hour. Occasionally an extra item is added to the mix, as in the year when Reynolds officiated at a wedding ceremony on the courthouse steps while drums rolled and pipes played.

With the performances completed, bands, dancers, and the Greater Leadville Hibernian Mining and Marching Society line up yet again. This time Reynolds and company lead the marchers three blocks down the sidewalk, with many spectators following in a Pied Piper-like procession, to the l879 Silver Dollar Saloon.

Never mind that the saloon was named for Silver Dollar Tabor, the youngest daughter of 18th century silver baron and Leadville founder H.A.W. Tabor, and his second wife, Baby Doe; with its shamrock-bedecked exterior, the Silver Dollar easily lives up to its self-proclaimed billing as Leadville’s only authentic Irish bar.

Besides, everyone in Leadville is Irish when the St. Patrick’s Day Practice Parade comes to town.

Lynda La Rocca, who lives and writes in Leadville, has been known to turn Irish on occasion.