WILDWOOD — Like the first time your toes touch the sand on your way to the water’s edge, the smell of the salt air coming through your open car window as you drive across the causeway or the burst of sweetness from a piece of saltwater taffy, the Wildwood Baby Parade is a rite of summer that thousands look forward to every year.
Every summer for more than a century the Wildwood Civic Club has brought bevies of babies to the Boardwalk to march, toddle, or be pushed in a parade. This year will be no different, except for the fact that members of the 102-year-old club will be recognized for their commitment to the baby parade. Named parade grand marshals for this year’s event, the Wildwood Civic Club is being honored for its 100th anniversary as a federated club.
The annual event brings children, from newborn to 12 years, and their families to the Boardwalk, each hoping to take home a trophy and top honors in categories that include cutest baby boy, cutest baby girl, fancy children, most original children, best dressed, costumed and floats. Each of those categories is original to the first parade, held Aug. 23, 1909 said Kay Sparkman, Baby Parade chairman.
Jackie Thorpe, Wildwood Civic Club president, said in 1909 a group of local women developed the idea of a baby parade and beauty pageant in order to encourage tourists to stay in the city in late August. Three years later those women founded the Wildwood Civic Club, which became part of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) in 1914.
“That’s what we’re celebrating,” said Thorpe. “One hundred years of service.”
“These women are amazing in what they give to our community,” said Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano. “For more than 100 years, the Civic Club has played an integral part in Wildwood’s history. There would be no baby parade without them and their tireless dedication not only to this event, but to all that they do.”
Long before marketing agencies developed the idea of a “shoulder season,” the women who put the parade together in its infancy knew that keeping tourists in the area was good for the local economy.
“It was held at the end of August in order to bring people in around Labor Day,” said Pat Cook, Civic Club past president. “Atlantic City had Miss America at Labor Day and they wanted to bring tourists here.”
Over the course of the past century, the baby parade has always been blessed with sunny weather, except for one parade. Not even wars could keep kids and their families from marching on the boards. The Great Depression, however, was another story. Because of the dire economic conditions throughout America, the parade was not held in 1933 and 1937. Lack of sponsorship caused the parade to be canceled in 1992 and 1993.
In addition to its century-long commitment to the Wildwood Baby Parade and Queen Oceania pageant, the club’s philanthropic roots grow deep in the city’s sand. The organization sponsors fundraising events that help support the club in distributing food to needy families, providing sweets to nursing home residents, providing scholarships to local students, providing hot lunches to those in need, supporting Family Promise, providing personal items to abused women living in shelters and sponsoring an essay contest.
Throughout its history, the baby parade has always been a free event, said Cook. With the assistance of local sponsors and volunteers, the parade now includes bands, string bands and pipers as it makes its way north on the Boardwalk from the Convention Center to 16th Street.
While it may take a village to raise a child, it takes a large group of dedicated volunteers and financial sponsors to help a child parade on the Boardwalk. In addition to the Civic Club, the parade’s main benefactor, sponsors include many local businesses. Volunteers come from all walks of Wildwood life, including the Wildwood Beach Patrol, local Boy Scouts and many residents.
“Without their donations of money and time we couldn’t produce this parade,” Sparkman said.
According to Thorpe, Sparkman and Cook the parade is a chance for everyone to have fun and enjoy a long-standing family-centered tradition that supports the Wildwood community.
This year’s parade is slated for Wed. July 30, with a rain date of July 31. The parade kicks off at 6 p.m. outside the Wildwoods Convention Center. Judging takes place before the parade.