Loss of workshop could end St. Patrick’s Day parade float tradition

AGAWAM – It’s a surprise every year for the colleens of Agawam when they see their float for the first time when they arrive at the staging area for the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade. This year, the surprise may be that there is no float waiting for them.

The 2023 parade could be the first time since the Agawam St. Patrick Committee began choosing colleens and building floats that there won’t be any in the parade. The volunteers who design and build the tanks are eager to get started on a new tank, but need a large enclosed space to build it, since they no longer have access to a building where one can be built.

Doug Reed has been involved in float building since 2014. He now leads the team that volunteers his time on the Agawam floats, which have won six first place awards in seven years in the Holyoke Parade.

“Traditionally, we’ve built the floats every year in a warehouse at Six Flags New England,” Reed said. “But when I contacted the park last winter to use it again, they told me the park couldn’t accommodate us. I felt like they were done with us – and that’s unfortunate. For many years they let us use the building during the winter when the park is closed.

Luckily, they didn’t need to build a new float from scratch for 2022. Reed explained that the float, built on a hay wagon trailer, is usually disassembled to be used for a new one for each parade of the Saint Patrick. But since the 2020 and 2021 parades were canceled during the coronavirus pandemic, the float built in 2020 could still be used for the 2022 parade.

“We stored the float – which was built in two sections – behind Sarat Ford for two years. It was difficult, but we managed to do it. Amazingly, he remained in good condition,” Reed said.

He explained that all excess materials, such as plywood, had been removed and placed over the two sections of the float. Then he was covered with a large tarp. Each time a tarp deteriorated, another was placed over it—four tarps in two years.

“We moved it from there to my driveway first — with a police escort — so we could start getting ready for the parade,” Reed said.

Then, with only three weekends to reassemble the chariot, the Eastern States Exposition accelerated. Reed made a phone call and got permission to bring her into the Farm-A-Rama building when the crew was in a time crunch.

“Six Flags only allowed us to work Saturday mornings, but the Big E was great because we could work there evenings during the week. It was a great script — and we can’t thank them enough for being so kind as to let us in to finish the float,” Reed recalled.

But now that the Big E is fully open for its year-round events, it has to use the building, Reed said.

When the parade was cancelled, Reed said the decision was made to keep the 2020 colleens so they could ride the float in the next parade. Although not all six colleens were available, three of Agawam’s 2020 colleens – now in college – rode the float as it rolled through the streets of Holyoke.

He said if the committee was going to build a float for the 2023 parade, which is March 19, they needed to quickly find a place to build it, as work usually begins in January.

The float has been parked behind City Hall since it was last used in this year’s Memorial Day Parade. Reed said finding a place to park a trailer is easy, but finding a place to build a float on the trailer isn’t such an easy task.

“It’s a difficult situation. I understand that garage space is valuable – many people or businesses don’t have excess garage space.

He said the tank committee, made up of about 12 volunteers, needed at least the equivalent of two garage spaces: “We need space to park the tank. And then we need space for construction and space for all the painting.

If the committee can find a space, ceiling height could be a factor in its design.

“We build big floats, but we build them in two sections. At Six Flags, and again at the Big E, there was a forklift available to lift this second section. If there wasn’t, we had to try to borrow one.

Reed said the committee had been pulling out antennae to find a suitable enclosed area, but he stressed that if a float cannot be built for next year he has a “plan B” in the works, although he keep the details in an envelope.

“We are all convinced that we are not going to let the Agawam St. Patrick Committee collapse, even if it is very small. We will ensure that Agawam continues to have a presence in the parade. We may not have a float, so we may have to get creative to have that presence,” he said, adding that he can be reached at [email protected]

Reed added that some towns don’t have colleen contests and don’t have floats – South Hadley and Easthampton are two – but participate in the parade with marchers.

“The float is the float,” he said. “What’s important is that the float is for the colleens. It’s their float. That’s why we do it.