Growing up in McDowell County when I did, I became aware of the Veterans Day parade at a young age. In those days there were two big things that occurred on Nov. 11 — the parade through the streets of downtown Welch and the game for “The Barrel.”
The parade began by the city hall and library, just as it does today, on Howard Street. The route takes you down to Wyoming Street where you make a right turn, goes past the courthouse and then makes a 180 degree turn onto McDowell Street, past the parking garage and ends at the post office.
In the 1970s people packed the sidewalks four and five deep along the entire parade route and the lawn in front of the courthouse was jammed. All the decks of the parking garage would be filled with people cheering and waving as units rolled by. If this year’s parade attendance was 3,000, then in those days there had to be 10,000 in attendance.
The first parade in which I participated was 1976, marching in the Gary High School band. We played “Roll out the Barrel” the entire route, as did the Welch High band in preparation for the game that afternoon.
For the next five years I marched that route on Veterans Day. In 1977 Gary and Welch High Schools made their final appearances on those streets as a new high school opened in the fall of 1978 — Mount View. In ’78 I was part of the Gary Jr. High band and from 1979 through ‘81 I took part as a member of the Golden Knights band.
I had the honor and privilege the years I was at Mount View to play taps at the ceremony honoring veterans at the conclusion of the parade.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the Mount View and Iaeger High bands both had more than 100 members and there was a fierce competition for “The Trophy” which was awarded each year for the best high school band.
This past week I returned to McDowell Street for the 94th annual Veterans Day parade. It is believed to be the oldest continuous event of its kind in the nation, conducted by American Legion Post No. 8.
The way Legion posts are named, they are numbered in order of their creation, so it is evident that the Welch post was the eighth created. We had Post 38 in Gary, I remember my brother Michael playing Legion baseball and having a “38” on his cap.
While the population in the county is not even a third of what it was 30 years ago, there was a nice crowd and people were enthusiastic in their support of the event and in paying tribute to those who served.
While there were only two bands, River View High School and Concord University, they entertained along the parade route and the numerous floats were outstanding. My favorite was one by the McDowell County 4-H. They did not win any awards, but award winners from the Welch Kiwanis Club and the “USS Welch” by McBride Electric were outstanding.
The day brought back many fond memories, but still there was something missing. After 36 years, it still seemed strange not to head home to Gary, or out to Maroon Wave Stadium for a football game.
The Welch-Gary football rivalry was on a level of Beaver-Graham. Yes, it was and you had to see it to believe it. If either of those towns were the size of the Bluefields, you would have needed a 30,000 seat stadium to hold the crowds.
From the 1920s until 1977 the two schools played the final football game each season. In the beginning it was held on Thanksgiving Day, but probably in the ‘50s or ‘60s the game was played on Veterans Day and served as a conclusion to Armistice Day activities in McDowell County.
The teams played for “The Barrel,” a wooden beer barrel that the winning school kept for the next year. It was painted in the winning school’s colors – maroon and white for Welch, the Maroon Wave, red and black for Gary, the Coaldiggers. The year and score would be painted on the side.
When the Maroon Wave won the final game, we Coaldiggers thought the world would end. On top of that, we were going to be going to school with those Maroon Waves in the future.
Well, the world did not end and those Maroon Waves joined with us Coaldiggers to become Golden Knights and a lot of lifelong friendships were formed. In 1984 Northfork High School was merged into Mount View.
Not too long ago, I encountered some youth from Mount View who were not aware there were Gary and Welch High Schools. While the history of “The Barrel Game” and the schools that took part may not be known to some today, the history of Welch’s Veterans Day parade and its importance must be kept alive.
It is my hope that young children taking part in this year’s event will 40 years from now have memories to tell just as I have told and the legacy and tradition will continue.
Bob Redd, a resident of Bluefield, is a Daily Telegraph sports writer.