An eye-covered float rides through the Bordentown Halloween Parade in 2015. This year’s parade is set for Sunday, Oct. 28. (Photo by Ron Onorati.)

The annual Bordentown Halloween Parade is a family affair.

Katy McGowan has been running the Consolidated Fire Association’s Halloween Parade, set this year for Oct. 28, for nine years, taking over after the sudden death at of her father, Steve McGowan, who had been parade chairperson from its beginning. Rick Klinge co-chaired the parade from the beginning until his death a few years ago.

For the McGowans, the Consolidated Fire Association’s building on 20 Crosswicks St., dedicated October 24, 1970, is a second home. “I used to go to St. Mary’s School, right around corner. I would walk every day to the firehouse; we would hang out in the firehouse with my father, and he would drive us home,” says Katy McGowan. “The firehouse is a place to hang out for many firefighters.”

McGowan’s father joined the volunteer firefighters in about 1962 at age 16, fudging a little on the minimum age of 17. That was eight years before the July 5, 1966, merger of the Citizen Hook and Ladder Co., The Delaware Fire Co. and Weccacoe Hose Co. to form the Consolidated Fire Association to create the Consolidated Fire Association.

The first parade was held in 1970, after the new firehouse was dedicated. “People wanted to give a thank you back to the town for giving us a building to house the fire trucks,” McGowan says.

McGowan was the likely person to take over as parade chairperson after her father’s death because she had been helping him in small ways for years, even bringing friends home from college to help judge the masquerading contests. “Instead of ‘The show must go on,’ it was ‘The parade must go on,’” she says. “I jumped into his shoes, which were huge ones to fill.”

Although the actual parade starts at 2 p.m., people set out chairs in front of their houses starting about 9 a.m. to save seats for themselves, and they often have picnics together during the day.

The parade always draws back native Bordentowners who have moved away, reuniting families and old friends. McGowan relates that high school friends, who now bring their husbands and children to the parade, return for the weekend to their childhood homes. “They don’t get to see their friends very often—this may be the only time they see each other during the year,” she said.

The parade is a powerful draw for the entire Bordentown community. Businesses, organizations, Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, and families create floats, people don costumes, residents decorate their houses, and individuals and organizations create scarecrows. All are judged and awards bestowed.

Scouts may use the parade to earn merit badges. McGowan recalls one troop that transformed a Volvo station wagon into a Ghostbusters car. The kids on the float all wore Ghostbuster one-piece jumpsuits and carried “proton packs” with “ammunition” against the ghosts all around. Businesses use the floats to advertise.

“The Bordentown Funeral Home always comes through with some extravagant item,” McGowan says. Two years ago, their float, whose theme is traditionally kept a surprise for the day of the parade, was a huge stagecoach drawn by four horses with the family in, atop, or alongside it.

Frankenstein’s monster towers over a Bordentown police officer during the 2015 Bordentown Halloween Parade. (Photo by Ron Onorati.)

But floats need not be complicated. McGowan’s father’s philosophy emphasized broad inclusion of community members. “My dad was always a big proponent of ‘all you need is to put your kids in Halloween costumes and put them in the back of your truck with a couple of hay bales,’ and that was all that was needed to have a float in the parade—it didn’t have to be elaborate,” McGowan says. In fact, they give out a special trophy, the Steve McGowan Award, for the float that best “embodies his philosophy of how it is easy to be in the parade.”

The parade also features marching units. One group from Maryland, 40 people strong, is the Baltimore Westsiders, a drill step team that has joined the parade for over 20 years. “They are always at the end of our parade, and people will walk the whole parade route with them,” McGowan says. “They don’t stop moving the whole time.”

Another impressive group, from Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, is Riley’s Raiders, an adult drum and bugle corps. “They are the epitome of a performance band—marching in line, straight, in rows. They are quite a sight to see because they are very pristine.”

Trophies for parade participants include: first and second place for best adult organization, float or marching unit, the best children’s organizations and the best businesses, as well as a special judges’ award for participants who may not fall into one of these categories or who the judges feel need to be recognized.

Each year the committee picks as parade marshal a person “from the surrounding community who has gone above and beyond to make Bordentown a better place,” McGowan says. Although they have not yet selected this year’s marshal, she offers two examples from past years. Last year it was Joe Malone, former state assemblyman and Bordentown mayor, who still organizes the yearly train show at Old City Hall and is a go-to person who uses his connections with organizations and agencies to help out people with their questions, problems or struggles.

Another year it was Shirley Fisher, who in 1962 started a swim program—“Dr. Fisher probably taught 90 percent of the people in Bordentown to swim,” McGowan says—and her husband, Charles, a teacher in the Bordentown School District, where Shirley also taught and coached for five years.

At 12:30 p.m., before the parade, anyone in costume can go to the St. Mary School parking lot to be judged for the masquerade contest, which has prizes for children, adults, families, and groups. “They have the option of walking in the parade or going home and watching with family and friends,” McGowan says.

McGowan’s committee—Jean Kafer, treasurer; Micki Klinge, band coordinator; Anne Lyon, masqueraders coordinator; Nancy Walls, house decorating coordinator; Stephen Hodose, logistics coordinator, and Steve Hodose [Stephen’s father], historian—have each taken responsibility for a different part of the organizing process.

Because all registrations now come through the website, bordentownhalloween.com, the organizing process has gotten a little easier. But they still need to get approvals from the city, the police department, and the public works department to ensure the parade’s safety, requiring several months of coordination. McGowan’s mother, Pat McGowan, and sister, Christy McGowan, also help field phone calls and answer questions and are available the day of the parade to help handle any difficulties that come up.

Over the past few years, the parade has added a house-decorating contest for residents of Bordentown City, Bordentown Township and Fieldsboro, who can register their houses on the website. “It has turned into a big deal—people have gotten very competitive,” McGowan says. Decorations can be as simple as cornstalks and spider webs, to elaborate lighted displays. On Brooks Avenue and Thompson Street, she adds, “they actually close the roads on Halloween night because so many people are walking down the street just to look at the houses.” The prizes are first, second, and third place ribbons that residents can display on Halloween night.

In the past five years they have also added a scarecrow contest. Scarecrows can be registered on the website and are due at the firehouse on Saturday, October 13, at 9 a.m. At the First Baptist Church in Bordentown all the children build their own scarecrows. All scarecrows are judged and the winner receives “an awesome trophy,” McGowan says. The scarecrows are displayed around town on Farnsworth Avenue through the end of the month.

The parade has also inspired other Halloween events. The Downtown Bordentown Association sponsors a Ghost Walk, usually the same weekend as the parade, and the Department of Public Works holds a haunted hayride.

The parade is run entirely on donations, and if they don’t reach budget they have to make cuts, McGowan says. All the bands, including the high school band, get paid, masqueraders get cash prices and winning parade participants get trophies. Those wishing to help can mail donations to Consolidated Fire Association, PO Box 47, Bordentown, NJ 08505 or deposit them in orange trick or treat buckets that people will be carrying at the beginning and end of the parade.

The parade will follow Elizabeth Street, then make a right onto Second, a left onto Park, then a left onto Farnsworth, a left onto East Union, then a left onto Crosswicks to the reviewing standing in front of the Clare Estates, then a turn onto Lafayette, and ending up back at Elizabeth.

The parade is teaming up with the Kiwanis of Bordentown for their Annual Sock Drive. All participants and watchers are asked to bring new packaged socks that will be collected along the parade route. The goal is to collect 1,000 pairs of socks.

McGowan was born and raised in Bordentown. Her father was a computer operator at McGraw-Hill, and her mother still works as water clerk for the City of Bordentown. McGowan graduated in 2004 from Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania outside Philadelphia. She worked as senior agent for Randstad USA for four and a half years and has been a recruiter at CoWorx Staffing in Princeton for nine years.

Her father, McGowan says, was very involved in the Bordentown community, serving on the planning board and other committees. He was also very active in the Firehouse and Relief Association of the fire department, which “supports any local firefighter that might need relief or help in their normal, daily living,” McGowan says.