The Legend of Brooklyn’s Long Defunct Thanksgiving Day Parade

Thomas H. Cullen

The Thanksgiving tale involving Thomas H. Cullen has been repeated in Brooklyn for generations and amazingly, it’s a true story from the 1890s that was retold at numerous political functions for generations. 130 years ago Brooklyn celebrated Thanksgiving far differently. The highlight of the public celebration was a parade that went through much of the City of Brooklyn, heading along Bedford Avenue through Bedford Stuyvesant and Williamsburg. Thousands of spectators turned out for the event and it was a natural draw for aspiring politicians.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle archives: Feb. 17, 1933

The surest way to present oneself to the voters as a candidate for elected was by riding in the Thanksgiving Parade mounted on a noble horse. Tom Cullen was a young Irish-American longshoreman who dreamt of leaving the sweaty docks of Red Hook by entering local politics, but as a humble dockworker living in an overcrowded tenement, he was too poor to own his own horse. Cullen longed for a horse, but his ambition was not just to ride any horse. Cullen dreamt of riding in the parade atop a noble white steed and nothing would stop Cullen from procuring the white horse of his dreams. The inconvenient truth that Cullen had never actually ridden a horse before in his life seemed unimportant, such was the ambition of this naive aspiring politician.

Unfortunately, there were few horses among the docks and warehouses of Red Hook. All Brooklyn was scoured for the horse of Cullen’s dreams. Brown horses, grey horses, black horses and even dappled horses were presented to Cullen, but he dismissed them all contemptuously, for Culllen, nothing but a white horse would do.

Cullen despaired that he would never find the horse of his dreams, but then one day just before Thanksgiving, word reached Cullen that a white horse had been found in North Brooklyn: All of Cullen’s most fervent prayers seemed to be answered. His heart leaped, for now, all his most cherished political dreams could be realized.

The horse pulled a beer wagon for a Brooklyn German brewery. Every morning for years its driver would stop at a customers’ German saloon on Columbia Street where the owner gave the horse was a cold bucket of beer. The horse grew to love the saloon owner and his bucket of beer, and after his daily brew, the animal would happily pull the heaviest wagonloads of beer through Brooklyn streets without even the tiniest protesting whinny, even on the hottest and most oppressive of days.

Thanksgiving Day finally arrived and the anxiously awaited parade started. Cullen, dressed in a white suit bought specially for the occasion and beaming from head to toe, was greatly admired. His head became filled with a series of visions each grander and more agreeable than the previous one. Cullen imagined himself speaking in front of the Board of Aldermen, then the Senate in Albany and even the United States Senate.

All was proceeding just as he had dreamed as he rode down the cobblestone streets and through the cheering crowds until the horse reached his beloved saloon on Columbia Street. The animal recognizing the place, stopped dead in his tracks, refusing to budge, holding up the entire parade and causing great consternation to Cullen who now sweating profusely, seemed thoroughly helpless atop the recalcitrant steed, much to the delight of the amused onlookers. Such was the hullabaloo in the street that the German publican, hearing the din, appeared at the saloon doors. The horse, recognizing his beloved benefactor bolted, galloping straight for the swinging saloon doors and the terrified crowd on the sidewalk suddenly parted, just like the Red Sea in the book of “Exodus.”

Cullen, in a total panic now, held the reins for dear life, his face a study in abject terror. He just managed to duck under the doorjamb barely avoiding decapitation, as the horse raced headlong into the bar. The jolly German publican approached the horse and happily served our hero a bucket of foaming brew. The horse quickly quaffed his beer, shook his head vigorously two or three times and let out a satisfied blast through his nostrils indicating his readiness to rejoin the parade. As the horse with Cullen still saddled moved toward the door to rejoin the parade, the tavern’s floor gave out and the two went crashing through to the cellar floor. However, this shocking detail has been disputed.

A second version of the story omits the tavern’s floor caving in during the infamous Thanksgiving day incident in question. In the happier ending, the horse gulps down his beer and rejoins the parade to a crowd cheering Cullen and the horse on. Cullen subsequently got himself elected to Congress but never mounted a horse for the rest of his days.

A second version of the Cullen Thanksgiving story published on April, 26, 1944 (Brooklyn Eagle archives)

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

1 Comment

  1. paul says:

    Interesting story. Also in NYC, I am guessing pre 1950, children use to go around asking for treats not only on Hal. but also Thanksgiving.

    When I was a young kid in the 1950s, my mother told my older siblings to take me around on Thanks. and ask for treats.

    Apparently, the tradition was over and the home owners looked at us like we had two heads!

    Reply

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