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130 years of Donation Day parade

Donation Day parade on Broad Street in Nevada City.
Submitted photo |

For many, first word of Grass Valley’s Donation Day came on the pages of The Union newspaper — Dec. 20, 1883, or exactly 130 years ago Friday morning, when the annual tradition returns to downtown at 10 a.m.

“Donation Day,” the bold headline read. “To-morrow having been selected as Donation Day, each pupil of the Public Schools who wishes to contribute to the happiness of the poor, during the holidays, is requested to bring their respective schools a potato and a stick of wood, on the day above mentioned, the same to be given to the Ladies Relief Society, for distribution among the needy.”

The following day, and each year since, students have stepped up to help those in need.



The Grass Valley Daily Union’s published piece, announcing the intention of helping those in need, was the result of a moment of inspiration by Grass Valley resident Caroline Mead Hanson, who suggested the idea in a letter to the newspaper Nov. 20, 1883, after reading about the Ladies Relief Society’s need for assistance and while watching a group of schoolchildren walk past her home at Neal and School streets.

“The spectacle of these young people carrying their gifts to their several school houses attracted the general attention of citizens, who realized that it was one of the best lessons that could have been imparted to their children, in developing the best side of their natures, and showing what of good could be accomplished by united and harmonious action.”
The Grass Valley Daily Union, Dec. 21, 1883

“The donation from each child is so small, there is hardly a family who could not afford to give it,” Mead Hanson wrote, “but as there are several hundred schoolchildren attending our schools the aggregate might be of some value.”




As is tradition, the Donation Day Parade begins at Hennessy School on South Auburn Street, where students start their march up Neal Street to Mill Street before circling back to the school by way of West Main to South Auburn Street. The potatoes and sticks of wood have been replaced by donated nonperishable food items.

Even last December, when rain showers washed out the actual parade, leaving Grass Valley Charter School students to parade proudly within the walls of the former Hennessy School site, 150 families were provided with boxes of food. Joining Grass Valley Charter in making the donations were students from Alta Sierra, Bell Hill Academy, Cottage Hill, Deer Creek, Lyman Gilmore, Mount St. Mary’s, Nevada Union and Union Hill schools.

The donations were piled so high that Ladies Relief Society members said they would not have been able to distribute all the food if not for generous donations of shopping carts by SPD and Safeway markets in Grass Valley.

“The Grass Valley Ladies Relief Society deeply appreciates the support they have given to the community throughout the years,” Catharine Steele wrote to The Union following the 2012 show of support.

The Union’s first coverage of the event, published on the pages of the Dec. 21, 1883, edition, shared a similar success story.

“The proposition was a novel one, and it was difficult to say in advance as to how the pupils would enter into the spirit of it,” The Daily Union reported, “but it was evident as the school hour approached that Donation Day had become a popular idea, as nearly every boy and girl from the oldest to the tiniest dot that was learning its a-b-c’s was determined to do something for sweet charity’s sake, for as they filed along toward their respective schools they were seen bearing with them their respective contributions.”

“The spectacle of these young people carrying their gifts to their several schoolhouses attracted the general attention of citizens, who realized that it was one of the best lessons that could have been imparted to their children, in developing the best side of their natures, and showing what of good could be accomplished by united and harmonious action. The aggregate of the contributions was considerable, at each school potatoes that would fill several sacks were delivered, and piles of wood, amounting to cords.

“The result of this generosity shows that Donation Day will become popular, and upon each (annual occasion) when it comes around the generous donations will be such as to afford much substantial relief to the poor and needy, and doubtless other towns will take note of this simple and effective manner of providing relief, and follow the example.”


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