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YOUR HISTORY: May Day – Emmanual Gueho was a force behind Coquitlam celebrations
Children dancing around tall, white poles with colourful ribbons, girls in white dresses and white fur collars, parades of children trekking to Blue Mountain Park from schools as far away as Millside, where an entire town was gathering — it must be May Days.
Or so it was. Such were the sights and spectacles in the early days when Coquitlam celebrated May Day.
Although May Day finds its roots in labour and International Workers’ Day, Coquitlam was celebrating closer to Victoria Day. It was Emmanuel Gueho, a Coquitlam resident, who first rallied to have May Day celebrated.
New Westminster, the Royal City, had been celebrating since 1870 and he believed that Coquitlam should be celebrating, too. Gueho headed the May Day committee for 23 years and held the unofficial title of Mr. May Day. It was because of him that Coquitlam celebrated May Day for the first time in 1940 with the coronation of the first May queen, Evelyn Thacker.
Each year, a May queen was crowned during the merriment. The queen and overseer of the celebrations was not the only student with a special role to play. Students performed many roles during this unique celebration, including May princess, maids of honour, flower girl, and record bearer. Children participated through various school displays and colourful ribbon dances around the May pole. Schools held May Day balls and teachers would prepare the children to teach them their dances. As easy as it may have looked, these May pole dances were well-choreographed and much time went into teaching and learning them.
Renowned local children’s author Norma Charles remembers her days as a May princess. During an oral history interview with the Coquitlam Heritage Society, Norma described her experience in the early 1950s as a student preparing for May Day. She recalls that students, as young as Grade 5 and 6 would select one to two female representatives from their school who would then go from classroom to classroom and from school to school to gain votes on who would become May queen. It was a prestigious honour.
Although these celebrations no longer take place in Coquitlam, you can still get a sense of what they were like by visiting our neighbours in New Westminster, which has the longest-running May Day celebrations in the Commonwealth, or in Port Coquitlam (see column on page A36).
To view some artifacts and photos from the May Day celebrations in Coquitlam, however, visit Mackin House Museum, where the upstairs display case currently showcases May Day attire and photographs. A few of the special pieces in our collection include the crown, fur collar and queen photo of Pauline Pelcher, Coquitlam’s 1943 May queen.
Your History is a column in which representatives of the Tri-Cities’ heritage groups write about local history. Stefani Klaric is volunteer and programs co-ordinator with Coquitlam Heritage Society.