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Barton Glasser, Deseret News
Howdy the Clown rides in the Days of '47 Parade in Salt Lake City Friday.

Feelings of heritage and unity filled the streets of downtown Salt Lake City on Friday as thousands gathered to see more than 15,000 people participate in the annual Days of '47 Parade, one of the largest and oldest parades in the nation.

Jack Willis of Salt Lake City watched with more than a dozen members of his extended family — many of them wearing umbrella hats — at the same spot on South Temple that they have occupied for each parade during the past 30 years.

"We didn't have this back then," he said, pointing to his hat, "but it's a great invention."

Willis said the state of the economy right now makes the parade a great, inexpensive activity for families, and he thinks it's a "wonderful cause" that he hopes continues on forever.

"It reminds people of Utah's heritage," he said.

The pioneering parade, which commemorates the arrival of settlers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, started on South Temple, then wound down 200 East and onto 900 South, ending at Liberty Park. This year, the parade had 148 entries, according to Jodene Smith, co-chairwoman for the Days of '47 Parade committee.

"It brings a sense of unity and pride of our pioneer heritage," Smith said of the parade.

Smith said the parade honors people from any ethnicity or religious background. "(The parade) is honoring people who came not just from LDS pioneers, but everyone."

Red family-reunion shirts dotted the parade sideline as Luke Lole Ama and 50 Tesema Tafaoialii family members celebrated their pioneer heritage.

"Every three years, we have this event in Salt Lake City. We feel proud that we made it because of our ancestors," said Ama, whose family is originally from Samoa. "This is our home away from home."

People held portable mister bottles close to their bodies like IVs, while mattresses showed evidence of a late-night staking claim to spots along the parade route.

The gathering of more than 40 floats was not the only feature of the parade filling the crowded streets. Bands marched and played while horses clapped their hooves on the pavement. Antique cars from the pre-World War II era drove the route, as carriages and single riding groups moved past the crowds.

Smith said it was important for people to know where they came from, so they can know who they are.

"Everyone has a pioneer story somewhere in their genealogy, and we need an event to remind us of people who have gone before us," Smith said.

Betty Jean Hardman of Salt Lake City had such a story to share Friday. The 75-year-old woman spoke as she reclined on an inflatable mattress with her grandchildren on Rosa Parks Boulevard.

Her family has attended the Days of '47 Parade since her father owned an ice-cream and hamburger place on 11 South and Main Street. Although her father's business is now long gone and Hardman doesn't have a designated spot each year, she remembers people crowding in front of the business to watch the parade. Hardman has carried the tradition on with her family for the past 50-plus years, but that isn't what has her thinking of herself as a pioneer.

Hardman said trials and loss took her through a whirlwind of doubt and sadness for a portion of her young life, but that ultimately helped her blaze a pioneering trail for her 50 grandchildren and 34 great-grandchildren.

At the age of 23, Hardman and her husband were featured in the local newspaper as a young couple with seven children. She said she wanted to have many more children but became devastated after their sixth child died in a drowning accident. Hardman said she blamed herself, and her marriage fell apart. Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with cancer, but she was able to have it removed. In her mid-20s, she was a single mother of six children.

Hardman said she grew up a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but she abandoned her faith and became an atheist because "I couldn't understand why a loving God would do this" to her and her children. Many years later, she said, she was reborn into a Pentecostal church, "but they couldn't answer some of my questions," so at the age of 45, Hardman came back to the LDS Church.

Hardman believes the suffering and trials of her life helped her understand love.

"I feel like God showed me how," Hardman said.

After surviving four heart attacks in the last year and a half, Hardman said she doesn't know how much longer she has, but the legacy she hopes to leave for her posterity is a simple one. Love.

With her posterity around her, watching a parade dedicated to those who helped build Utah's heritage, Hardman said she wishes "that (her family) would be loving and kind to everybody, and forgiving."