Dairyman Dennis Leonardi will head up 25th annual Tractor Parade
From the December 7 print edition
By Susan Combes
Celebrating its silver anniversary, Ferndale’s Christmas Lighted Tractor Parade rolls down Main Street Sunday, December 17, at 6 pm sharp (or whenever we get done milkin’).
Twenty five years ago Ferndale’s Julie Petersen was just a teenager when she got an idea that Ferndale should host a lighted tractor parade. Her folks, Main Street residents Arne and Paulina Petersen, agreed and their business, Eel Valley Construction, backed her by sponsoring the parade for the first couple of years. Almost immediately, Arne Petersen remembers, Joe Renner and Jeff Liu jumped on board. As the parade’s popularity grew, the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce helped with the details and the insurance before calling on Carol Larsen to do the organizing. Joined quickly by Rick Phillis and other committee members who’ve changed over time, Larsen has been at the helm ever since, finding sponsors, making sure posters get out, cajoling dairymen to take time out of their busy schedules to decorate floats and string Christmas lights over their newest — or oldest — tractors and parade down Main Street, frequently in freezing cold or driving rain. But, hey, Larsen figures, the cows gotta be milked regardless of the weather so the hardy folks who dairy in the Eel River Valley can parade rain or shine.
Ferndale dairyman Dennis Leonardi is this year’s Ferndale Lighted Tractor Parade grand marshal. (Enterprise staff photo.)
Silver Anniversary Grand Marshal Dennis Leonardi has a pretty good idea of why entrants are willing to spend the time, hard work and money necessary to create their imaginative floats year after year, and never mind the weather.
“Everybody is there for the right reasons. It’s not about making money or winning a trophy,” he says. “It’s for the fun. For the families, the workers, for the entertainment.” Leonardi Dairy has had a float in the parade probably 21 times, Leonardi says. “It’s fun and it’s personal when you go down the street and you see all the locals and the out-of-towners all smiling,” he said. “Across the country we need more of this, all the smiles. At that time the world is a better place.”
Leonardi is still considering what to do with his float this year. He’s been proud over the years of using materials on hand and recycling and re-purposing just about anything lying around loose on the dairy, though he does buy a considerable number of lights each year. This year he’s thinking of including some of his favorite creations from former floats.
He remembers the surfing Santa, the replica of the Matterhorn with the skating rink when the kids were little, the giant German candles twirling the overhead fan, the little train that circled the bed of the wagon and those huge nutcrackers. Of course the entry will include his signature reindeer, prancing high on the tractor’s raised bucket. Which brings him, kicking back in his chair, eyes sparkling and laughter in his voice, to the story of the time Rudolph, flying high — maybe a little too high — at the head of the reindeer team, got hung up on the phone lines crossing a Ferndale back street. To avoid disaster, Leonardi, all dressed up as Santa, had to climb up on a house, two by four in hand, to lift the sagging phone lines.
“Those lines hang pretty low,” he said.
And then the float took off down the street, leaving Santa on the roof. Whereas nobody offered him any milk and cookies, “we didn’t interrupt any service,” he laughs. No, he won’t be driving the tractor. He leaves that task to one of his helpers.
“I’m always the Santa Claus,” he says, grinning.
For a change this year most likely he will be joined by wife Kathleen, who usually wants to watch the parade from the sidewalk. Also on the family float will be daughter Margaret and husband Brian Pruett, who will drive up from Mendocino County for the event. She is a wine maker at Fetzer, creating their white wines. Her sister, Elizabeth Leonardi and her husband Evan Johnson, won’t make the trip from Turkey where she is the U.S. agricultural attache to the Turkish Embassy. Son Zach won’t be able to make it either. He is in Seattle working for Expedia.
Leonardi is glad his children have gone on to what he believes are their varied and interesting lives and careers, leaving the dairy behind.
Dairying, he says, “is really hard work. It’s a pretty tough life…you work like three men.” But, he adds, “we’ve done well, really well, considering.”
He goes on to list a litany of things that impact local dairying interests: the weather, the floods, fluctuations in the ag market “the kick in the stomach with Humboldt Creamery.”
But going organic has stabilized the industry locally, he says, noting that the whole valley is in a unique position to take advantage of that expanding market.
The Leonardi family, he figures, has been dairying in the Eel River Valley for some 105 years, since his granddad, Zachariah, made his way here after he landed at Ellis Island in 1912. He must have dairied in the old country, since that’s what the Italian Swiss did in Monte Cristasie. A lot of local families — the Mognis, the Scalvinis, the Giacominis — also are from Monte Cristasie, Leonardi says.
Leonardi believes his granddad probably worked for local dairies until he and his wife Katharina were able to buy their first dairy, 40 acres on Waddington. That dairy eventually was taken over by Leonardi’s dad, Angelo and wife Kathy. After working his way through Cal Poly in the dairy there, Leonardi returned to the valley and took over his dad’s dairy in 1977, starting with 62 cows. Now he’s grown the family operations, centered out by Pleasant Point, where 350 Holsteins, with a mix of Brown Swiss, are being milked.
Proud as he is of his accomplishments as a dairyman, Leonardi is a multi-faceted man who has other accomplishments to be proud of.
He’s served on the board of the St. Joseph and Redwood Memorial Hospitals and their foundation for a total of 20 years, seeing many positive, if behind the scenes, changes to health care in Humboldt County. He is proud also to have helped start the Ferndale Children’s Center and to have participated in the remodeling of the Community Center. He’s also honored to have been named grand marshal of the Lighted Tractor Parade, an event he’s been so much a part of for so long.
Parade participants can find entry forms at the Fairgrounds, Nilsen’s, The Farm Shop, R&S Livestock Supply and Fernbridge Tractor. There is no charge to enter. Floats will gather by 4:30 pm in the Community Center parking lot for judging, which will begin then and end at 5:30 pm. At 6 pm floats will head up Main Street, past the reviewing stand in front of The Ivanhoe, turning left onto Arlington at the high school to disperse. Trophies, Ferndale Bucks, gifts and gift certificates, all donated by area merchants, individuals and businesses, will be presented at the reviewing stand.
Major sponsors are Pierson Building Center, Eureka, and Ferndale Chamber of Commerce. Major trophies and their sponsors are: Best Overall, the Howard and Cecilia Larsen Memorial, sponsored by The Ivanhoe, Barb, Dave and Lino Mogni and Carol Larsen and family, Erik and Kirk Vodopals and Tonya Smith; Most Lights, Rings Pharmacy; Best Animal Entry, the Harlan Detlefsen Memorial, Ferndale Veterinary; Best Junior Entry, the Les Martin Memorial, sponsored by the family; Oldest Tractor, The Farm Shop; Most Original, Ferndale Clothing; Judge’s Choice, Le Art Endeavor; Best Animation, Ferndale Emporium; Most Christmas Spirit, the Earl Ambrosini Memorial, Wells Fargo Advisors; Best Christmas Theme, Golden Gait Mercantile. Additional information about the parade can be obtained by calling Tractor Parade committee members Carol Larsen, 362-6281, Rick Phillis, 496-4475. or Lisa Hindley, 599-9088. Jim and Nadine Bass complete this year’s committee.