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A stuffed buffalo ... and other inaugural icons

Hargrove, Inc. employee Mack McCormack removes protective plastic film from a 36-foot tall American eagle float in Lanham, Md., last weekKevin Wolf / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

It’s not easy to find a stuffed buffalo.

For his first inaugural parade four years ago, Vice President Dick Cheney wanted a float to represent his home state of Wyoming. So float maker Hargrove Inc. designed a 45-foot-long mock-up of the Grand Teton mountains on wheels, with a real bubbling spring and a cowboy clinging to a bucking bronco. But it took weeks of searching to track down the buffalo.

“I talked to every taxidermist west of the Mississippi River to find him. They’re pretty rare,” said Hargrove marketing manager Marvin Bond, who finally got a Wyoming buffalo from a taxidermist in Colorado.

The Wyoming float will make a repeat performance in Thursday’s inaugural parade, along with a Texas float carrying the Crawford High School band and decorated with longhorns and a lone star, to mark President Bush’s home state.

Massive flag will cap parade
Bringing up the rear will be a massive American flag made from shimmery satin, towed by a 36-foot-tall, steel-framed bald eagle with feathers made of dyed grass.

In Hargrove’s warehouse 20 miles outside Washington, workers last week put final touches on six floats for the parade. They glued tumbleweed from Texas and silk flowers onto floats, sprayed coffee grounds to a steel horse to give it a deep brown coat and applied the last of a half-million staples to hold the flag’s satin in place.

The company has provided floats for every inauguration dating back to Harry Truman’s in 1949 and also makes the decorations and sets for the inaugural balls.

Work on the floats and designs has gone on for 16 hours every day since Christmas. The company used 20,000 yards of fabric, 15,000 live and silk flowers and 500 gallons of paint on the floats and ball decorations.

Even owner Earl Hargrove, who founded the company after World War II with his father, works on the warehouse floor to prepare for the inauguration. He will likely drive one of the floats in the parade.

“There’s no rehearsal in this business,” Hargrove, 76, said between applying silk bluebell flowers to Bush’s float. “You get a one-shot deal and you’d better doggone get it right.”

Mules went their own way
Things don’t always go so smoothly. In 1949, Hargrove was accompanying a team of mules leading Truman’s Missouri float. At one point, the parade route turned right down 16th Street, but the mules went left, carrying the float with them. In 2001, actress Bo Derek was positioned in front of Hargrove’s view as he tried to drive, forcing him to peer through her legs to stay on the road.

The company proposed several floats this year to the Presidential Inaugural Committee, which picked six. Like the Wyoming float, the flag has been used for previous inaugurations, starting with President Reagan’s in 1985.

This inauguration’s theme is “Celebrating Freedom and Honoring Service,” which will emphasize the nation at war. Hargrove translated that into patriotic and historical and slightly solemn elements.

The float that represents that theme will be a 32-foot-long scroll made of foam that bears the preamble to the Constitution. Decorations for the balls include colonial-style lettering on signs, columns with flowers and solid blocks of color on backdrops.

“It is more American traditional, less flamboyant,” Hargrove said. “It’s a serious time in our country. These floats will picture that.”

Some presidents and vice presidents take an active role in float designs, Bond said. The Cheneys were specific about what they wanted in 2001, which forced Hargrove to negotiate with the state of Wyoming, which owns the copyright to the bucking bronco and rider symbol that appears on state license plates. An authentic 1862 Conestoga wagon sits atop a car that will tow the float.

Former first lady got deeply involved
Lady Bird Johnson was so involved that she visited the company’s warehouse on a weekly basis to make sure the float depicting President Johnson’s campaign train, “The Lady Bird Special,” was what she wanted.

At 10 p.m. Wednesday, tractor-trailers bearing the floats will pull out of the Hargrove plant and head into the city with a police escort. At a staging area, the Secret Service will sweep the floats with explosive-sniffing dogs before clearing them for the parade.

Some floats, such as Cheney’s, will be sent after the parade to Hargrove’s museum in New Market, Va., to become part of a permanent exhibit. Others will be saved for future parades. Some will be destroyed.

“We keep the special ones,” Hargrove said before going back to work. “It’s a very traditional thing, and we enjoy being part of it.”