By Priya Banerjee
Originally published June 2021
In the last issue of the Grape, I talked to Laura Dahle, the de facto leader and only adult presence of the Oberlin Big Parade. What she told me about the beginnings of The Parade and the Bike Co-op boys who started it way back in 2001 left me wanting to know so much more. Throughout my conversations with those who have been involved in the Parade over the years, all of them have pointed to Zach Moser (OC ‘02) as the driving force behind its creation and longevity. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Parade, and as this year’s Parade Captain in charge of the whole operation, I wanted to reach out to the original founders in preparation. My attempts to get in contact with Zach proved fruitless, but I managed to get a hold of Ben Ezinga, one of the Bike Co-op boys in the inner circle during the Parade’s beginnings. Here is our conversation…
CAN YOU TELL ME WHAT YOU REMEMBER ABOUT HOW THIS WHOLE THING STARTED?
It was Zach’s idea for his Junior Capstone project. And this would have been in 2001. And you know, at the beginning it was very, without any of the form that exists now, where people understand that there’s gonna be a route, there’s gonna be floats, and these people are gonna show up, and we are gonna start here and end here. When everything was kind of formless at the beginning, the principles were sort of emerging like OK this is radically open. Anyone is welcome to show up anyway that they want to present themselves or their group, through art, through dance or motion or whatever it is. The idea was to make space for that and to make a platform for those people, and just see who shows up. And I think the radical part of it was that there was going to be no organizing structure. Nobody was going to say yes or no. And you know there may have been some rules that have come into being over the years that have modified that a little, but I feel like it’s always kinda stuck to that original vision of you provide this platform and then the creativity of the Oberlin community will manifest. And it will do it in such a cooler way than you could have imagined if you tried to essentially plan it.
I KNOW THAT THE BIKE CO-OP WAS INTEGRAL TO THE CREATION OF THE PARADE. WERE YOU INVOLVED IN THE CO-OP?
I was involved in the Bike Co-op since my sophomore year, and that, to me, has always been a great example of community organizing that I wanted to replicate. You have the tools, you have the expertise, and then the culture just kinda passes down that knowledge and makes mechanics out of people who are straggling off the street. And I feel like the parade did that in an analogous way. Like OK Here’s the tools, here’s the float bases, and materials and paints. People come in with their ideas and hopefully that culture persists so that you’ve got the people and the ideas that are going to realize these visions. The bike co-op was definitely integral to it.
WHY DO YOU THINK THE PARADE WAS INFLUENCED SO MUCH BY BIKE CULTURE?
It was all coming out of that same culture of, like, very DIY, a little punk mixed in, a little anarchy mixed in, a little sense of ‘well of course we can do that. Why not? This is a crazy idea, let’s make it happen’. That’s always been the best part of the Oberlin spirit. I think just about everybody who was a bike mechanic at that point ended up putting together a float. A lot of the early floats were bike-based, and I think that aesthetic has carried through, as well. Bike’s are just the right vehicle: they’re made of metal, you can weld onto them together, they’re sturdy, you can put two of them together and you can carry a lot –you put four of them together and you can make something really big and crazy. They are the right amount of professional and DIY, you can modify them.
LAURA HAS TOLD ME THAT YOU LIVED AT MAN FARM, WHICH, UP UNTIL TWO YEARS AGO,WAS STILL RENTED OUT BY STUDENTS AND STILL CALLED MAN FARM. CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE HOUSE?
I am so glad and a little ashamed that that name persists. That was a house after I graduated.y friend Sam Merritt, who also went to Oberlin, we bought this house at 189 South Professor Street. I think we bought it in 2006. We did not come up with the name Man Farm––that was bestowed upon us. There were five of us postgraduate guys living there. I like to think that we brought a lot of energy to the parade. We built some stuff a couple times now, we know what's going to work and what’s not going to work. We are always happy to lend a hand on Parade stuff, like, let’s build something structurally sound that’s actually going to make it to the end of the Parade and not fall by the wayside. Man Farm, if you were curious, came from...we found in the basement of 107 East College––it’s a cute little house across from Tank––in the basement someone found iron on shirt patches, and it said ‘Portman Tree Farm’. It was what the Portman Tree Farm had been ironing on to their shirts for their softball team or their workers. There was this cool little logo of these two hands up stretched and then a tree growing out of the middle. And so people started cutting up the Portman Tree Farm words, and rearranging them into various things. And Man Farm, with the symbol of two hands holding a tree became a symbol of the house.
YOU HAVE BEEN INVOLVED WITH THE PARADE SINCE ITS CREATION, HOW HAVE YOU SEEN IT EVOLVE OVER THE YEARS?
In good ways and in bad ways–or, never in bad ways. But you know, it’s a lot more professional feeling now: more professional, less anarchist. You sort of have the sense that it’s going to start more or less on time, it’s going to go along this route, and it's going to end more or less at the same time here, and then there’s going to be this festival. I think that in a lot of ways that’s really cool that it’s become an institution in that way, but so much of the original thrill of it was not knowing that it was going to work. Not knowing that and having that always be a risk in the early parades was really a fun and exciting part of it. Everybody who was making their first floats had to ask themselves that question too, of ‘Is this gonna work’ and ‘is anybody gonna get what I’m saying’.
RUMOR HAS IT THAT THE FIRST EVER PARADE FLOAT WAS AN ELEPHANT…HOW WAS THE ELEPHANT BORN?
The physical float that Zach made for the first parade was this double bike elephant. In my mind it was the life-size of a real elephant. It was rigged up so that as you pedaled the pedal on either side, they were hooked up to the legs of the elephant, so it was doing a somewhat realistic lumbering motion at about elephant top speed of 10mph. I remember Zach got it ready a couple before the parade, and it’s inaugural ride around town was at 2am on this misty morning. It’s Saturday night and people are stumbling out of the Feve, and this elephant just…[whooshing noise] right down Main Street. No one had ever seen anything like that before, and it was beautiful. It wound up being parked in Tappan Square afterwards, and it was kind of like the spirit of the Big Parade.
Ben’s insights into the essential anarchist, bike-centric, elephant driven spirit that was integral in early years of the parade made me desperate to bring some of that back. The parade has definitely changed since then, for better and for worse. These days the float route is fairly limited to starting in the Professor Land of the wealthy West side of town and ending on College Street, making the primary participants and audience of the event those associated with the College. In the early days, the floats would travel far and wide to garner a greater audience of community members, as opposed to just college students. The event still acts as a unifying force between town and college, but the unity that was integral at its inception has recently become more of an afterthought. The longevity of this Oberlin tradition can only be explained by the immense involvement, support, and creative energy of the community. This parade cannot happen without this town, and moving forward, we need to remember how we got to where we are now.
For the 20th Anniversary of the Big Parade I want to think back to the beginning of it all and bring back as much of that original spirit as we can. This year’s parade is of course going to be Birthday themed, so you should expect to see lots of birthday party paraphernalia marching through the streets. Because the traditional parade day of the first Saturday in May has already passed, our big birthday celebration will be held this Fall. I don’t want to give too much away...but let’s just say it will be a precious memory that you will want to keep forever.