The Statue of Liberty lives with a cootie.
Or rather, a model of the New York City landmark and a giant rendering of the title character from the Milton Bradley game Cootie. The two icons share space at the American Celebration on Parade, a curious collection of rousing Americana in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Inside the warehouse/museum are the products of a lifetime of imaginative thinking—the floats that Earl Hargrove Jr. has been sketching, building, and driving for more than 60 years, from dragons to trains to an American flag as large as a theater stage.
Visitors are greeted by 20-foot-high carousel horses, a 30-foot-tall grinning jester, and a 25-foot-high bust of a woman, crowned and dazzling. A dragon that looks as if it could breathe fire is crammed in with larger-than-life toy soldiers, an American eagle the size of a small prop plane, and a pirate’s ship as long as a tractor-trailer. Ringing the walls are the seals of every presidential inauguration from Truman’s to Obama’s, the remnants of now-recycled floats made on-site by the Hargrove team. Presidents and First Ladies stood on these floats—and now the public can.
But there’s a reason the objects are in a museum. While inaugural parades carry on, the golden era of floats has passed, and the multi-level sequined and flashing mobile jubilations seem out of place amid today’s more toned-down celebrations. Three of Obama’s six inaugural floats in 2009 had been used previously, one in a non-inaugural parade.
Blame balloons, which have become more popular, or the floats themselves, which are increasingly expensive. “Back when we started, if you had $1,000 or $1,500 for a float, that was a lot of money,” Hargrove says. “Today they can run as high as $200,000 or $300,000.” Most, he notes, cost $25,000 to $75,000.
Hargrove, known as “the President’s prop man,” built Hargrove Inc. on the backs of floats, creating a thriving, Lanham-based company that now manages myriad events for the inauguration, from balls to signs. But floats remain his love, and when he passed the company to daughter Carla Hargrove McGill and son-in-law Tim McGill in 2008, the octogenarian kept the American Celebration on Parade museum for himself.
Although he realizes the future of floats is uncertain, Hargrove isn’t ready to give up on his life’s passion. (This year’s inauguration was the 17th he has worked on.) “The past two or three inaugurals, the floats have become less important,” he says. “But as long as the inaugural committee wants them, we’ll build them.”
January’s floats, which were created in just weeks, might eventually find their way to the American Celebration on Parade—just as holiday ornaments gravitate to the attic—where they’ll remain available to the public year-round.
“The float business really in many ways has changed,” Hargrove says. “It’s just like the whole world has changed.”
This article appears in the February 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.