As the story goes, on July 4, 1957, A.G. “Glen” Thomas rode his steam engine around the (old) courthouse in Cumming to honor American veterans, and, with that, a tradition was born.
“My grandad, A.G. Thomas, he ran those steam engines back when he was in business in the saw mill … then he started collecting them and playing with them, just a pastime,” said Chigger Webb. “We started around the square and we had a few kids on bicycles and a few dogs, and that was about it. From there, it is what it is today.”
Thomas was given permission for the first parade by Mayor Dr. Jim Mashburn, who decided to join in the next year with his own steam engine.
This Tuesday, the Thomas-Mashburn Memorial Steam Engine Parade will roar through downtown Cumming for the 60th year, and Webb is among the handful of local residents who have been there since the very beginning.
“Basically, we had nothing here on the Fourth of July back in the 50s, and then after that there weren’t a whole lot of steam engines here yet. There were a few,” said Mary Helen McGruder, Mashburn’s daughter. “Roscoe Thomas … lived around Coal Mountain and would join in, then they got some tractors in it and old cars and then, like all parades, floats appeared.”
McGruder said some years after the parade, people would go to her family’s house on Pilgrim Mill Road.
“They would bring wheat, and Mr. Glen would bring his wheat thresher, which is the great big grain machine they pull behind a steam engine, and they would have wheat threshing after the parade,” she said. “After the parade, all of the steam engines would come back to our house and do this wheat threshing.
“They did that for several years, and people would bring picnics and coolers and just sit out and eat while all of this threshing was going on.
Webb said he never thought of the parade going this long and has since passed running the engines to his children and grandchildren.
“We started with one or two,” he said. “I guess there’s 25 or 30 now.”
Bud Thomas, who helped rebuild the steam engine for the city of Cumming’s cotton gin and who said he is a distant cousin of A.G. Thomas, said he had worked on steam engines “before they ever had a parade.” Just this Friday, he was working on an engine in the rain for Tuesday’s parade.
“In this part of the country, they used to pull a threshing machine with or a sawmill, and I guess that was about it,” Thomas said. “They didn’t plow with them here like they did out West and all that; the fields weren’t big enough.”
As the area grew, new Fourth of July traditions, such as fireworks, came along and the parade route changed due to traffic demands, but the parade and steam engines kept chugging along.
McGruder said the parade is now a way for both longtime and new residents to see the county’s rural past.
“I think it’s like everything else in Forsyth County – if you grew up here and knew where it started, you never would have imagined what we’ve become,” she said. “I think it speaks to the importance that a lot of us put on our heritage. I think it certainly indicates the support of the city in recognizing where we’ve come from because without the cooperation of the city, it could not happen.”