Bringing the ribald revelers home
Several years ago, I tried to write a single paragraph that contained every cliché ever used to describe what happens in urban Louisiana on Mardi Gras.
It went something like this:
Cries of “throw me something” cascaded above the carefree Carnival chorus of ribald revelers who thronged into the city’s center to greet the mystical rulers of Mardi Gras’s madcap merriment. Raucous throngs of masked merrymakers and good-natured fun seekers donned fanciful and outlandish garb as they turned out to laissez les bons temps rouler as the Monarch of Mirth and his lovely Queen toured their domain aboard resplendent regal barges in a playful prelude to the pomp and pageantry of a fairy tale ball and tableau that will end at the stroke of midnight, the beginning of the somber Lenten season.
That sort of fanciful language has been used to describe Mardi Gras for more than a century in south Louisiana, even though for many years our madcap revelers flocked to New Orleans rather than celebrate at home.
In earlier times, steamboat captains offering special excursion prices encouraged people to flee the countryside for the revelry of New Orleans, and the offers were well received.
In 1873, the Opelousas Courier complained, “Had it not been for the impromptu turnout of about a dozen maskers — mostly small boys — Tuesday evening, we might never have known that Mardi Gras had reached as far as Opelousas.”
In 1876, the steamboat St. Mary “reduced the price of passage to and from New Orleans … in order that everybody may have an opportunity of seeing the sights on Mardi Gras, and in 1877 the “Magnificent Passenger Steamer” Lessie Taylor issued “Excursion Tickets for $10” for the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans.
1877 was probably the first year something resembling an organized Mardi Gras came to Acadiana. That year, Rex, king of the New Orleans celebration, paid a “state visit” to St. Martinville. That seems, however, to have been a one-time affair. Over the next decade, excursion boats continued to ferry hundreds of people from south Louisiana to the Crescent City.
Merchants complained that the steamboat (later, rail) excursions deprived them of business, and made one or two attempts to keep the crowds at home, but with not much success.
Glen Conrad noted in a history of New Iberia (New Iberia; Essays on the Town and Its People, Center for Louisiana Studies, 1979), “Beginning in the mid-1870s, hundreds of … residents made an annual pilgrimage to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and … merchants loudly lamented the fact that large sums of money were being spent in the Crescent City.”
But it “proved to be a monumental disappointment” when the business owners tried in 1877 to keep the crowds at home. “At least 315 New Iberians boarded steamers” bound for New Orleans, Conrad wrote. That was 20% of the town’s total 1870 population. Alice Ann Gates recalled in an essay in the book that as late as the 1920s, “it seemed that the whole town of New Iberia would go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.”
The first home-grown celebration in St. Martinville was also based as much on commerce as the Carnival spirit. It was put on in 1894 by the local Board of Trade and the “King and Queen of Commerce” ruled over an evening ball. According to the reports of the day, maskers roamed the streets all day, working themselves into the proper mood before a parade through town in the middle of the afternoon.
Folks from New Iberia were still leaving town, but at least some of them sailed upstream instead of for New Orleans. The steamer Harriet “brought a party from New Iberia that witnessed the pageant” and it was counted among the 673 persons at that night’s ball. That 1894 celebration was called “a huge success,” turning a profit for the Board of Trade of $124.35.
Since then, practically every south Louisiana community has begun a Mardi Gras celebration of some sort, and there is evidence that the annual exodus has gone full circle. More and more people from New Orleans are now leaving the city to come party with our throngs of masked merrymakers and good-natured fun seekers — which, as we all know, is the way it should have been in the first place.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.