by Barbara Sherf
The annual Wissahickon Day Parade (WDP) will be held on Sunday, May 1, in the Chestnut Hill/Mt. Airy section of Fairmount Park. The parade is the oldest annual equine parade in the US and is sponsored by the Wissahickon Valley Riding and Driving Association (WVRDA).
Tradition dictates that only riders and drivers participate; no one walks. This tradition relates to the purpose of the original 1921 parade, which was to protest the proposal by a Mr. E.T. Stotesbury to open the main Fairmount Park path to the then-new automobiles. A “Save the Wissahickon” campaign rallied more than 600 riders and 10,000 spectators to keep the park automobile-free. Forbidden Drive got its name from the proposal’s defeat; hence, cars are “forbidden.”
For this 90th anniversary, the goal is to attract 90 riders and drivers to participate in the parade, which will begin at 12 noon, departing from Harper’s Meadow. The line-up will start with carriages in front of Northwestern Equestrian Facility (NWEF) at approximately 11:30. The parade will travel to Forbidden Drive and continue along the drive to the judging area at Valley Green Inn.
A horse show will precede the parade, starting at 9 a.m., with classes held in the outdoor arena of NWEF. Classes include English, Western, Costume, Stable Group and Carriages. Registration for both the show and the parade starts at 8 a.m.
Spectators can watch the horse show from the bleachers in front of the ring in Harper’s Meadow, and parade viewing is available anywhere along Forbidden Drive. The judging area in front of Valley Green Inn is the most popular parade viewing site. Picnic areas are available throughout the park.
The Parade Marshal Emeritus is long-time Flourtown resident Tom Fitzpatrick, or “Dr. Tom,” as fellow riders and members of the Philadelphia Saddle Club call him. Fitzpatrick did not get into riding seriously until his retirement at the age of 55 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Laboratory, where he worked for nearly 40 years. A World War II hero with many medals from his military service, Dr. Tom is now 86.
About 23 years ago, he was a founding member of the Philadelphia Saddle Club, a group of 14 members who pay a monthly fee for unlimited riding time on five horses. “It’s a great option for anyone who wants to get into or back into riding without paying a lot of money for a horse and its upkeep,” he noted. Indeed, this writer is a member of the club and thankful for it.
“I feel indebted to Tom and the Saddle Club,” Dr. Carol Lippa once told me. (Dr. Lippa was a long-time member who is now based in Chester County.) “Without him, many others and I would not have had the opportunity to phase back into our life-long passions. Who other than Tom would have recognized the need and had the commitment to dedicate so many hours to running this club?”
Dr. Tom, who has served as president of the Saddle Club for 23 years, frequently checks in on his five horses that make up the Saddle Club. He checks the blackboard for any injuries and just keeps up on who went out and when.
Fitzpatrick, whose grandfather operated the current Northwestern Equestrian Facility in the late 1800s in Chestnut Hill, remembers riding as a child. “There were several stables in the Wissahickon Valley where you could rent horses for an afternoon,” he said. “We really didn’t know what we were doing, but we did a fair amount of that. My grandfather rented carriages to doctors and wagons for commercial use.”
At the annual Wissahickon Day Parade, there is a “Bob Dougherty Memorial Trophy.” Bob “Doc” Dougherty, a retired mounted Philadelphia police officer, passed away in January, 2003, from injuries suffered in a carriage accident. He taught many how to drive and ride in the Wisssahickon Valley, and ran a carriage service from his “Outback Farm.”
Fitzpatrick ran the Wissahickon Day Parade in 2005. Former Saddle Club member Joan Ziejewski told us at that time, “We didn’t have much notice about putting on the parade. It sort of fell into his lap. We knew we had to keep it going, and while it was small, it still carried on the tradition. Dr. Tom is an old-school gentleman . . . a dying breed.”
Fitzpatrick said, “It’s important to maintain an equestrian presence in the park. Horses are such an important part of our region’s history, and they provide a special presence in the park.”
Ziejewski once owned and operated Northwestern Tack Shop. She turned to Tom when a fellow horseman, Jimmy McPeak, also a retired mounted police officer, passed away.
“Everyone wanted Jimmy’s dog, Max, a lovely Border Collie. But I knew he would be best with Tom. Jimmy was a longtime bachelor like Tom,” she said.
In 1943, at the age of 18, Fitzpatrick enlisted in the US Army Air Corps as a radio navigator and gunner. He flew in missions in a B-17 over Nazi-occupied Europe, staying until the war was over in 1946. He served in the North African and Mediterranean European Theaters, receiving an Air Medal three times, a Good Conduct Medal, a Theater of Operation Medal, a Victory Medal and five Bronze Battle Stars.
After the war, he returned to the US Department of Agriculture doing scientific research, and received his PhD in biochemistry from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He received a Master’s Degree from the University of Maryland. He did his undergraduate work at Penn State University, where he also rented horses in his down time.
However, he didn’t get his first horse until he was 62 years old and well into his retirement. “For the people who don’t know what to do in their retirement years,” he said, “I can tell them what to do. They say, ‘What are you going to do with this life you’ve been given?’ and I say, ‘Well . . . everything.’”
During the parade, Northwestern Avenue will be closed to traffic and parking to accommodate horse trailers and carriages. Parking will be available in the upper lots at Valley Green. For more information or a registration form, visit www.wissahickonday.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.