Friday, February 23, 2018

Mardi Gras in Mobile!

 (due to the flaky internet, posting will be slow for February)
Forget New Orleans, Mobile is THE place to celebrate Carnival. There are parades everyday, kids get a whole week off from school, and yes, Plantation Rainbow goes all out in celebrating. Well, OK, there is no nudity, but there is a king and queen crowned, a week of skits and dinners, and a parade!
 What exactly is Mardi Gras? Officially, Mardi Gras happens on Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday and Carnival stretches from the feast of Epiphany (Three Kings Day) and to the eve of Ash Wednesday.

 There's a lot of myths and tall tales surrounding Mardi Gras, but here is the history as we understand it. Around 1700, French soldiers who had survived a recent plague of yellow fever spent a week carousing. Mobile began celebrating Mardi Gras around 1703, and the first known parade happened in 1711, when residents carried a paper mache bull down Dauphin Street.
Things really took off in 1830, when Michael Kraft and some of his buddies got drunk one night and decided to raid the display of the local hardware store. Armed with rakes and cowbells, the group of revelers formed an informal parade over to the mayor's house, to serenade the politician with their good cheer.
The story goes the mayor was amused, townspeople were delighted with the nighttime ruckus, and the first masked parading society was formed -  the Cowbellian de Rakin Society. Which also explains why Mardi Gras is big in Alabama and Louisiana, but never became a hit in Texas. Having grown up in a small Texas town, I can confirm that any group trying such a thing in the middle of the night would've been shot, instead of being encouraged!
Back to those crazy Albamaians. For the next thirty years, mystic societies held Mardi Gras parades and balls, and people up and down the Gulf coast partied hard. Which brings me to a problem I have with the Mobile version of things.

According to Mobile lore, yellow fever birthed Mardi Gras. While its true that was the reason for the first celebration, it was the invention of the cotton gin 
in 1794 that really made Mardi Gras what it is today. Thanks to the cotton gin, it was suddenly easy to clean cotton - at a time when spinning was becoming mechanized.

The result was a cotton boom that created one the first mass-market industries, and made cities like New Orleans and Mobile very, very rich. People could afford to spend, and spend lavishly, on parades and balls and festivities. It also meant the slave trade, which had been dying out in the late 1700s, would recover and continue on for another six decades.

Just a couple of blocks from the Mardi Gras Museum is a statue of Raphael Semmes, a Confederate Captain. We have no answer to the current controversy about Confederate memorials, but seeing the memorial certainly reminded us that there is a whole other history behind the money that fueled early Mardi Gras celebrations.

 The Mobile Carnival Musuem costs $5, which includes a very interesting and entertaining tour. Parking is free (lot is across from the Spanish Plaza Park).

Know before you go: The museum is only open during certain hours and closed during holidays, so check the website before you go. The museum is in a historic house. While there is an elevator, some rooms and halls are only accessible by steps.The path from the parking lot to the museum was not as friendly as it should've been.
 This Italianate beauty is the Bernstein-Bush mansion. It was built in 1872 for Henry Bernstein, later owned by Mayor John Bush, and still retains most of its original decorations and plasterwork.
The king elected by the Mobile Carnival Association is called Felix III.

 Mobile has two Carnival associations, the Mobile Carnival Association and the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association. It also has 70 mystical societies, called krewes, that put on around 30 parades each year. Both associations elect a king and a queen each year, as well as a juvenile king and queen.
 This is James Van Antwerp Junior, the first juvenile king.

In the 30s, the Mobile Carnival Association tried electing 5 year-olds as juvenile king and queen. When it became clear that was a bit too young, they began electing eighth-graders instead. The other association elects high school students as their juvenile king and queen.
Originally, Mobile used mules to pull the parades, but quickly switched to cars as soon as they could. The krewes were struggling to find farms to house all the mules needed for Carnival!
Most of the museum is dedicated to the regalia of the kings and queens, which are rotated out. Each robe, scepter, and crow  has different designs and emblems, chosen by the king or queen who will be wearing it -

although some get more creative than others!
All but two robes in the museum's collection were made in Mobile. The robes are made by hand (the material is too for a sewing machine) and can weigh as much as 35 to 40 pounds.
 Robes used to be edged in fur, but are now edged in fake fur or other trim. Several robes on display had edges that had been recycled from older robes.
To wear the high collars and the trains, the king and queen wear a harness under their clothes.
The museum has several videos on the different queens and kings, and it's clear some royalty are having a bit of difficulty walking while wearing a crown, high heels, and a 35 pound train. The tour guide showed us one train that even had hidden ball bearings, to help reduce the drag of the train!
John Cain, One of his 'Girlfriends' and one of his 'Merry Widows'

Up until the Civil War, Mobile celebrated Mardi Gras to ring in New Year. After the Civil War, the festivities were banned. In 1866, John Cain, a cotton broker, paraded through Mobile in an effort to bring back Mardi Gras - but chose to do so during Lent (as observed in New Orleans). Cain was successful, and celebrated Mardi Gras for several years in Mobile, before moving back to his home town, where he died in 1904.

He was re interred later in Church Street Graveyard in downtown Mobile, creating a new tradition. Every year, 'girlfriends' and 'merry widows' of John Cain put on their veils, dresses, and high heels, and parade in his memory. And if you're wondering, no, not all of them are of the female persuasion.

Across from the parking lot is the Spanish Plaza Park.
The park, filled with art and sculptures, is dedicated to Malaga, Mobile's sister city in Spain. We couldn't find any information on this fountain, but something tells us it was probably erected in the 60s or early 70s. The random and creative use of concrete arches, perhaps?
Of course, you can't mention Carnival in Mobile without mentioning Toomey's. Toomey's is the main purveyor of 'throws' - the swag and beads tossed to the crowds during parades.
Toomey's was established in 1978, and is now run by one of the sons. The current building is 70,000 square feet and full of anything and everything one needs for Mardi Gras.
It also has quite a few float artwork um, floating around.
We're especially partial to this dog's hat. He is rocking that yellow flower.
Of course, we can't talk about Mardi Gras in Mobile without mentioning Moon Pies. (Which are crazy, crazy cheap. A dozen pies for $2? What??)

 So, what is a Moon Pie? Moon Pies supposedly originated in 1917, and were first sold to miners. Originally just two cookies with a marshmallow center, the Moon Pie company now makes moon pies in several flavors. This year's flavor was coconut. Apparently, coconut moon pies were dropped from the company's flavors in the 70s, but the current owner of Toomey's asked for it to be brought back. Miss Boo made sure to sample both coconut and caramel, and agrees the coconut really needs to be regular flavor - and as we all know, cats are never wrong!


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