Just a few good times

Ar­kan­sas tried to cel­e­brate Mardis Gras but (gen­er­ally) failed

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PROFILES - TOM DIL­LARD Tom Dil­lard is a his­to­rian and re­tired ar­chiv­ist liv­ing near Malvern. Email him at Ark­topia.td@gmail.com.

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.

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