Just a few good times
Arkansas tried to celebrate Mardis Gras but (generally) failed
The celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans reminds me that efforts were made in the years following the Civil War to introduce these festivities to Arkansas. Although the effort failed to develop an ongoing celebration of Mardi Gras, some awfully interesting history was made.
Mardi Gras is a tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, but in the Protestant world it is known as Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras, which translates as Fat Tuesday, is the final day of a three-day Carnival preceding Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Carnival, as it is known in much of the world, is a time of celebration, feasting and parading through the streets in incredible costumes prior to the abstentions of Lent. It is a time when local authorities symbolically turned over the city to the Mardi Gras organizers.
Some writers believe the effort to establish Mardi Gras in the South was motivated in part to celebrate the death of Reconstruction. However, it seems that in Arkansas at least, some of the Mardi Gras organizers came from the ranks of Republican reconstructionists.
On Feb. 17, 1874, the Arkansas Gazette ran a brief notice that a Mardi Gras parade would be held later that day in Little Rock, “and about three hundred persons agreed to turn out in the procession today.” Noting that previously the celebration had “been principally [limited] to New Orleans and Mobile,” the newspaper stated that during the last two years Memphis “observed the day in pretty much the same manner as New Orleans, and quite a number of our citizens have gone to the Bluff City to witness the grotesque procession at that place.” Helena also organized a large Mardi Gras carnival in 1874.
The first celebration in Little Rock was indeed a small affair. The Little Rock Republican newspaper called it a “weak effort,” noting that “the carnival procession, headed by a brass band, numbered 12 or 15 on horseback and three or four on foot.” Regardless, the newspaper stated that “as a people we do not unbend ourselves sufficiently,” and that “from the puny and ridiculous effort of yesterday a large parade and a genuine carnival may result.”
Given the fact that Little Rock and Arkansas were heavily Protestant, it should surprise no one that voices were raised in opposition to having a Mardi Gras celebration. An unsigned letter to the Republican complained: “We cannot heartily endorse what we consider a silly aping of customs so entirely foreign to our democratic institutions, a revival of the stilted forms and set customs of dead-and-gone ages …”
Despite the opposition, Little Rock was intent on having a real Mardi Gras the following year. On Feb. 9, 1875, great masses of people filled the streets of Little Rock and watched as thousands of revelers paraded. “The procession was long and interesting, and the majority of the maskers were well behaved,” one newspaper reported.
The city went to considerable lengths in 1875 to ensure that Mardi Gras events were peaceful and law-abiding, if not dignified. After assuring “masqueraders” they will be granted the “greatest latitude, so long as they conduct themselves with propriety,” the Little Rock police chief announced that “all persons drunk on the streets” would be arrested. Also, revelers were to leave their guns at home, and “those refusing to be searched will not be admitted.” Among the other prohibited acts was the “throwing of flour, charcoal or other offensive articles or throwing or squirting water.”
The 1875 Mardi Gras was judged a success by all, but it paled by comparison to the celebration in 1876. The 1876 Mardi Gras was better planned and promoted. Attendance was huge, with people coming from throughout the state: “Last night there were fully 10,000 strangers in our midst. The hotels were crowded from garret to cellar, and the private boarding and lodging homes and wagon yards [were] running over.”
The 1876 parade must have been a sight to behold, with one newspaper reporter writing “the procession was grand, funny, ridiculous, enterprising, laughable, interesting.” For the first time, the parade included floats, some of which were quite sophisticated if outlandish, including one portraying a white elephant with “head and claws of an eagle.”
Leading the 1876 parade was the Pine Bluff Silver Cornet Band, carried “in their beautiful chariot.” That band was followed by the Carnival royalty, and they were followed by “the Little German Band.” The City Brass Band of Little Rock made a big impression “with a beautiful Indian maiden as leader.”
The festivities in 1876 were reported to be peaceful, although tickets to the popular Mystick Krewe ball were counterfeited.
Perhaps the high point in attendance came in 1879 when the city was overrun with out-of-town visitors. One reporter wrote that “the crowd on one corner of the street became so heavy, and so full, that some of the boys were sent to the opposite side of town to keep the city from tilting up.”
Mardi Gras celebrations declined in Arkansas after 1879. The events seem to have become more commercial, with vendors outnumbering floats. A cold snap, with temps as low as one degree above zero, decimated the 1899 Mardi Gras.