If you ever attend the Athens-Limestone Christmas parade in Athens, Alabama, you have probably seen a Friends of Ripley float. Their floats are always very elaborate and very nicely done. What many do not realize is that it is more than just a parade float.
If you already have one, give it to someone who doesn’t” is printed inside the cover of a red New Century Version Bible. These words were spoken by the late Ed Black as he handed out Bibles to people around Athens before his death in April 2005.
Ed Black was a farmer in western Limestone County where I grew up. Ed grew crops of corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat, and also had cows and chicken houses. He was born and raised in the community called Ripley and was fondly referred to as “Fast Eddie” by friends because of his days as a track star at Clements High School.
In 2003, Ed was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. When he was diagnosed, he made it his personal mission to hand out Bibles to people. He would buy the Bibles in bulk from the CEI store in downtown Athens. According to his wife Gayle, there is no telling how many Bibles he bought and gave to people. He would give them out anywhere there were people to give them to – the gas station, dentist office, the auto parts store, etc.
Ed’s sister Myra King tells of Cindy, a lady in the community who had moved to Alabama from Oregon. When Cindy came to buy hay from Ed, he gave her a Bible. Ed sent Myra to visit with the lady since they were both horse lovers and they became friends. In a year, Cindy had rededicated her life to Christ and she will tell you that Ed’s Bible is what caused her to reconsider her life.
In 2004, Ed’s condition was getting worse.
“It was the holidays, but we were not feeling too cheery,” Gayle said. “Our son Shane and nephew Andy John had always said we should do a Christmas float for the Athens Christmas Parade, so I signed them up.”
Although they were a little reluctant, they started planning a float.
Ed had a cotton wagon he had turned into a hay wagon for his cows by putting a roof on it which kept the hay dry. On a Sunday afternoon they hatched an idea to make the wagon into a float.
“I remember Ed was very bothered because he was afraid the tires were bad, so he put four new tires on the wagon because he was afraid we could not make it to town with the float,” Gayle laughed.
The theme of the Athens parade that year was Christmas songs so they created a float that went along with the song “Up on the Housetop.”
“It looked exactly like a house coming down the road,” Myra explained.
They reconstructed the hay wagon into a house that had windows, window boxes, kids inside looking out the window, complete with Santa stuck in the chimney.
“When we sent in the application, it came back stating there was prize money. We had no idea that there was prize money given. I remember Myra and I driving to town to buy reindeer for the roof and talking about how there was prize money. We laughed and wondered what if we were to win the grand prize and received $1,000, but we didn’t think we would actually win,” Gayle said.
The parade came and their float won grand prize. Ed was not physically able to go to the parade, but Gayle called him after the parade to let him know they had won.
After the parade, the Black family forgot about the money. Ed was getting worse and it was not a priority at the moment. The check stayed at the bank for months before they went and picked it up. Upon receiving the check, they decided to use it to purchase Bibles for Ed to hand out; it would be a good thing to do with the money.
Ed liked a certain version of the Bible, the New Century Version, because he grew up reading the King James Version which was difficult for him to understand. He found this particular version better and absolutely thought everyone should have it because they could understand it. He wanted to give this version to people, so if they did not think they could understand the Bible, they could understand this version.
Ed Black died in April 2005. In December, the family decided to do another float in his memory. They decided if they continued entering a float in the parade and won money, they could use that money to buy more Bibles just like Ed had done.
Shane, a local attorney, is artsy and the creative genius behind the floats ideas. Typically, they will get together for lunch and discuss ideas for that year’s float. Family members will chip in ideas.
It takes the talents of members of the community to make it come together. Gayle, Janice King and Angie White are responsible for the decorating and making the colors and costumes come together. Andy King serves as carpenter, mechanic and electrician. Shane’s wife Trisha excels at painting and making the float shine.
“Each year we get different people in the community involved, the first year it was just a little group of people and we didn’t know what to call it, but then we decided on the ‘Friends of Ripley’ it was so fitting,” Gayle said. “You do not have to live in Ripley to participate; we have people who just want to help, so we take anyone who wants to take part.”
The group makes everything by hand and it takes a lot of work and the different talents possessed by each person. Typically work starts in October or November, but one year Shane started working on some elves for that year’s float in July. The group always takes a break for the Iron Bowl and for the week of Thanksgiving.
“It is a loving and fun atmosphere to work in,” Myra said.
“After each year, Shane and I talk about the most enjoyable part of the process … that we get to see and be with folks we are not able to be with much during the year. We have such fond memories of working on these floats; it is a time of fellowship and hard work. We all gain so much more than the money,” Gayle reflected.
The group started off always having Ed’s initials on the float, but they have since lost other family members and friends in the community including Angie White, who also battled cancer and was one of the major contributors to the creation of the float.
In December of 2014 the Friends of Ripley received the Grand Prize in the Athens-Limestone Christmas Parade.This honor has been awarded to the Friends of Ripley for 10 out of the last 11 years.
Their float is more than just a parade float, it provides a time of fellowship and memory making for those involved. Any prize money won allows Ed Black’s mission to continue by placing Bibles in the hands of people who maybe do not have one. That is a gift that can keep on giving.