April 25, 2018

Les Jorud and "The Seventh Annual Vigilante Day Parade"

By Kelly Burton, Film Archivist

Costumed students from The Seventh Annual Vigilante Day Parade (collection PAc 90-50)

When speaking of photography in Helena, Montana, few names are as recognizable as that of Leslie H. Jorud (September 19, 1899 – August 21, 1977). Over the course of five decades, Jorud’s career in photography took him “into a cage with five lions, 275 feet up inside the smokestack at the AS & R smelter in East Helena, into morgues and operating rooms, into the wilderness alone with a nervous horse who wanted to go home, into a bucket over Canyon Ferry dam, down into mines, up steep mine shafts, in airplanes and to all the major events in Helena.”[1] In addition to the 50,000 negatives and 7,000 prints currently being processed in the Montana Historical Society’s Photo Archives, the institution is also home to 47 motion picture films created by the Jorud Family. These 16mm home movies span the early-1930s through the mid-1950s, and they provide contemporary viewers with a wonderful document of Montana culture during the first half of the twentieth century.

Costumed students from The Seventh Annual Vigilante Day Parade (collection PAc 90-50)

One of the major Helena events to be captured by the Jorud Family movie camera is the Vigilante Day Parade. Boasting elaborate costumes and floats that find a common theme in the region’s past, the event is perhaps better described as a mobile history pageant. A public letter from former Helena High School principal (and then-current Helena mayor) Albert J. Roberts in 1939 provides the most thorough narrative concerning the parade’s inception. Roberts claims to have inherited several school traditions that were “subversive to discipline, often lawless in character, and in the main hostile to the good work and reputation of the school,”[2] the worst being the ‘Senior-Junior Fight’. The activity moved to Helena streets and alleys after being banned by the school administration, and “a few boys each year came out of the fray with black eyes, bloody noses, teeth knocked out, faces scratched and bodies bruised, all for the honor of the ‘biggest and best class ever graduated from the Helena high school.’”[3] Other attempts to celebrate the end of the school year – ‘Sneak Day,’ ‘Old Clothes Day,’ ‘Hard Times Day,’ and ‘Costume Day’ – eventually became the Vigilante Day Parade: “After much serious discussion of the situation, and other readjustments of the entire activity program of the upper-classes, it was decided to put on a big historical pageant, in which every boy and girl in High School would have an essential part. The pageant, later called the Vigilante Parade, was intended to present in the main the adventurous life and colorful customs of the Montana Pioneer, especially the Pioneer of Last Chance Gulch. To the promotion, work and achievement of this program, the Senior and Junior classes gave their wholehearted support, a pledge, which to the present time has been faithfully and diligently observed.”[4]

Costumed students and spectators from The Seventh Annual Vigilante Day Parade (collection PAc 90-50)

While the MHS moving image archives contains several reels of the Vigilante Parade in various collections, the Jorud Family footage from May 16, 1930 represents the oldest and best-preserved film of the pageant at the MHS repository. Though only in its seventh year at the time of the film’s creation, the event garners a sense of civic enthusiasm that is echoed in the advance newspaper coverage: “The parade this year will equal or surpass that of preceding years, the boys and girls declare. The streets will be cleared of cars, and the juvenile burlesquers will be given the fullest latitude for their performances. Already the youngsters of Helena are excitedly discussing the Vigilante Parade as the next local event of superlative importance. It will be a grand and glorious event from all standpoints of the rising generation.”[5] The anticipatory article goes on to describe several of the entries to be captured by the Jorud Family camera, including the “old swayback horse and two-wheeled cart illustrating the rig of early days, the six-horse stagecoach of Canyon Ferry, a hangman’s float with a replica of Hangman’s tree, and a long string of pack mules lent by the federal government.”[6] At almost twelve minutes, the reel documents preparations by students on the day the parade, the passing of dozens of the historical entries along the pageant route, and audience reactions to many of the displays.

Costumed students and spectators from The Seventh Annual Vigilante Day Parade (collection PAc 90-50)

Home movies such the one created by the Jorud Family provide great insight into the evolution of our civic traditions – they allow us to see what has changed and what remains the same. Mayor Albert Roberts happily noted in 1939 that “thousands of our citizens have obtained a knowledge of the life and customs, of the thrilling story of the early days in the Treasure State”[7] through the Vigilante Day Parade. The 94th Annual celebration of the pageant takes place in Helena on May 4, 2018, and one supposes that Roberts would be still more excited to learn that his fledgling event is now nearing its centennial.

The hangman's tree and spectators from The Seventh Annual Vigilante Parade (collection PAc 90-50)

[1] Helena Independent Record, June 26, 1955.
[2] Helena Independent Record, May 28, 1939.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Helena Independent Record, May 7, 1930.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Helena Independent Record, May 28, 1939.