Celebration parades

An official total of 31 Jeeps created a celebratory convoy Tuesday. As the evening went on, the line accumulated a few "extras" that weren't included in the official total. (By Sarah Titley)

As informal parades become more and more part of daily life under social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders, one local organization is taking the trend to an entirely new level.

There was a rumble in the air as the parking lot of Seneca Lanes bowling alley grew increasingly crowded Tuesday. The clock ticked down to 6 p.m. and laughter danced over the revving engines as the crackle of radios drifted from one end of the chain to the other.

“All right let’s head out,” came the call, and one by one more than 30 Jeeps pulled out onto Route 257.

The convoy rolled down the road to a soundtrack of cheers and honking horns until it began to snake its way up the entrance road to UPMC Northwest. There, a contingency of hospital staff waited just outside the ambulance bay doors.

“See, I told you this was cool,” one nurse laughed to another over cheers and shouted “thank you’s” as the Jeeps slowly rolled by with most occupants waving homemade signs of thanks.

This particular convoy marked one week of Jeep celebration parades headed up by Oil Valley Jeeps, a fledgling group of Jeep enthusiasts established in October and based in the Seneca/Oil City area.

The club boasts members from Venango, Clarion, Crawford and Butler counties.

“We don’t discriminate between models,” said Oil Valley Jeeps co-founder Eric Elliott.”If it’s a Jeep, it’s a Jeep.”

The mindset was evident in the convoy which ranged from the traditional Jeep Wranglers and Rubicons to Cherokees, Gladiators and Renegades.

At the helm of the events and near the front of the convoy, Vera Campbell regroups the Jeeps and gives directions.

It was Campbell who Elliott said brought the idea of doing drive-by celebrations to the club’s attention, and now she fields requests, orchestrates routes and keeps the club from chaos.

Campbell also keeps in contact with the celebrants to make sure they don’t miss the parade or wait outside for too long.

The convoy regrouped after snaking its way around the hospital, then the Jeeps headed down Bredinsburg and Deep Hollow roads and toward the first of four birthdays they would celebrate Tuesday.

As the team streamed by one house after another, neighbors shouted to one another and kids poured out onto front lawns to cheer and wave.

But as much joy as the huge group brought to the residences they passed by, Oil Valley Jeeps had specific destinations mapped out over a 22-mile route – a short jaunt compared to some of the parades that have already been held.

The line crested Victory Heights Hill and there was the second of four targets, a woman named Lil Bellis who was celebrating her 90th birthday.

The convoy heeded the instructions of a sign placed at the end of Bellis’ driveway as they honked their horns and flashed their lights. Bellis and her family smiled and laughed as the seemingly endless parade passed the house.

Children’s birthdays had been the original idea behind the parades, Elliott said, but as the convoy gained attention, more and more people and events hopped on board.

While Elliott said the group’s favorite celebrations are still the ones involving children, the way adults react to the Jeep invasion is almost as good.

“Young or old, it doesn’t matter to us,” Elliott said.

Elliott said the main objective of the parades is to provide a little bit of sunshine to the people they drive by.

“It’s kind of our way of, hopefully, bringing a little bit of happiness to a depressing situation,” said Elliott’s wife, Patty.

By the time the convoy made its way down Horsecreek Road to wish Patty Elliott’s father, Dan McGarry, a happy 83rd birthday, the train had accumulated tag-ons. Random Jeep drivers who had no idea what the parade was for, where they were going or what the club was saw the train and decided, for that moment, to grab onto something and participate.

Eric Elliott said that isn’t an uncommon phenomenon – even in regular Jeep Club occasions – but as more drivers tagged onto the end of the convoy, the more joy the group seemed to get.

But as much joy as the group gets out of riding together, it’s clear those they drive by get just as much.

“Last week we did one for a little boy celebrating his fifth birthday,” Elliott said. “His mom said he didn’t sleep the night before and wouldn’t sleep that night either because he just wanted to keep watching the video.”

The group, which currently accepts requests on its Facebook page or by email at OilValleyJeeps@gmail.com, is planning the parades as often as members can fit them in. But Elliott said there will be specific days for the events starting in May.

Everything the club does is out of pocket.

“We didn’t form this to make money, we just want them to pay it forward,” Elliott said.