Historic City Memories: Memory of a Fiesta

This is another installment in a series of articles that Historic City News has been fortunate to receive permission to publish; taken from a collection of nostalgic memories recorded by Geoffrey B. Dobson.

Memory of a Fiesta
By Geoff Dobson

“What ever happened to Days in Spain?” the old timer asked. The question asked at the morning coffee drew no response. Everyone at the table remembered the fiesta. It was put on by the Jaycees and was a big deal. The fiesta held in August or early September of every year was nationally recognized. It had been featured in National Geographic Magazine. Articles about it appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Denver Post, and even the Toronto Star.

Most years the festival lasted three days. For the 400th anniversary of the city, it was expanded to a full five days. The parade started from the San Marco Lot, where once stood the magnificent San Marco Hotel. From there, the parade proceeded down Bay Street (present day Avenida Menendez) to the Plaza and then around back to the San Marco Lot. The length of the Parade was such that the last units in the parade were just leaving as the first units arrived back to the Lot. Every night there were sword fights from Government House down St. George Street. Costumed Spanish and French soldiers dueled on tops of walls, on overhanging balconies, and on a stage. The Spanish costumes came from Cross and Sword, now also gone. Those playing the part of French soldiers made their own costumes. Food and handicraft booths – including the infamous confetti-filled egg – lined the old plaza. Local residents participated in a Spanish beard growing contest. Street dances were held. Representatives appeared at Gasparilla in Tampa. It really was a big deal.

What happened to the Jaycees?’ another asked. All remembered the Jaycees. Some of the old timers had been members. They remembered Bob James, the Fleming brothers, Fred Whitley, Pat Masters, Jack Pacetti, Wayne Reyes, and Phil Genovar as being active. Bob James wrote the script for the sword fight and did the narration. The St. Augustine Jaycees, as an organization, are gone, dissolved according to the records of the Secretary of State in 1990.

Fiestas in St. Augustine go back to the 1880’s. The first major celebration was the multi-day Ponce de Leon Landing Celebration held in the springtime. The 1885 event inspired Henry Morrison Flagler to name his hotel after Ponce de Leon. The celebration continued until World War II. Its remnant is found in the annual Easter Parade. An honorary “Ponce de Leon” with soldiers and priests landed in a replica galleon on the bay front where a reenactment of the first Mass was celebrated. A huge parade then wended its way down Bay Street beneath a welcoming arch in front of the Hamblin Mansion (now the American Legion) and then up to Cathedral Place and down St. George and through the City Gates. Another welcoming arch was constructed by members of local labor unions at the corner of King and Cordova.

At the time it was customary for towns to construct Welcoming Arches for special celebrations. Although some were simple just for the occasion, others were permanent and quite elaborate. The most famous were Denver’s (now gone) arch opposite Union Station, Reno’s neon bedecked “The Biggest Little City in the World” arch, and Rock Springs, Wyoming’s “Home of Rock Springs Coal” arch constructed by the local Lions Club and still welcoming visitors notwithstanding that the mines have all closed. The arch in front of the Hamblin Mansion was temporary, but the one at the corner of King and Cordova appeared to be more permanent. Photographs show its two legs had coquina bases.

Military units from as far away as Savannah participated in the Ponce de Leon celebration, as did the Corps of Cadets from the Kentucky Military Institute and the Halifax Rifles. To some extent the celebration reminded one of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, with reenactment of battles between “Indians” and the cavalry. Indians attacked a stagecoach. There was a boat parade led by the Capo’s Pauline II on which a band played. Other maritime events included a 15-mile speed boat race and a five mile work boat race. Years later another speed boat race was conducted in St. Augustine, the 1982 “First [and last] Annual Kiekhaefer Off-Shore Powerboat Race.” Local civic organizations were convinced by the sponsors of the race to set up food stands for the thousands of spectators expected to view the race. The boats did one turn in the bay in front of the Castillo and disappeared out the inlet never to be seen again. The town had been duped. It took the writer over a year to work off left-over hot dogs from his freezer.

In the Ponce de Leon Celebration, sports were not overlooked. Baseball games saw the local YMCA compete against Stetson and Rollins College. Swimming and diving contests were held in the great natatorium (the swimming pool) of the Alcazar Hotel. The wheelmen were not left out. St Augustine had active wheelmen. The wheelmen decorated their bicycles for the occasions. The final culmination of the fiesta was the presentation and display of the five flags that had flown over Florida. The Ponce de Leon festival was twice featured in National Geographic Magazine, 1930 and 1940.

It was a simpler time, a time when people did not take themselves overly seriously. Local organizations raised their own funds and did not rely on a beneficent government to fund their celebrations. A few such festivities have survived. Gasparilla continues but it is now “alcohol free,” pirates without rum. Rawlins, Wyoming, continues with its annual “outhouse race.” This year the fire department won. Century 21 Real Estate came in second. Cheyenne’s Frontier Days has grown from a one-day affair inspired by Greeley Colorado’s Potato Day to become the World’s largest rodeo. Others celebrations have disappeared in the name of political, historical or animal correctness. Sarasota’s Sara de Soto Pageants started in 1916. It celebrated a fictitious daughter of Hernando DeSoto.

The pageant disappeared to be replaced by “King Neptune Frolics.” Rio Grande, Ohio’s International Chicken Flying Meet was killed off at the behest of a nonprofit organization “dedicated to the compassionate and respectful treatment of chickens, turkeys, ducks and other domestic fowl.” The chickens were placed on top of a mail box. Which ever flew the farthest won. San Antonio, Florida’s International Gopher Racing Championship lost out to the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. Other festivities have disappeared through changes of membership in the sponsoring organization.

Welcoming Arches are regarded by some as “tacky.” Recently, one neighborhood in New York State restored its welcoming arch. Citizens protested, one writing that the arch “is just about the most hideous piece of street architecture in the world. It’s only topped by Saddam Hussein’s Raised Swords found on the entrance to Baghdad.”

The elimination of Days in Spain was not due to one single cause. Like the Gopher Racing Championship, parts of Days in Spain became victim to bureaucracy. The food booths were closed down by the state bureaucrats. No longer was it possible to sell food to the general public unless it was prepared in a state licensed and certified kitchen under the supervision of a licensed food manager and the booth passed state inspection. Gone were booths selling the traditional aroz con pollo (chicken and yellow rice), fromajardis (a traditional Minorcan pastry), Potaje de Garbanzos (Spanish Bean Soup), Minorcan Chowder, and sausage pilau.

The Jaycees, dissolved in a fit of correctness. New members joined who perhaps did not understand the culture, humor, boisterousness, and camaraderie of a formerly all male organization. Its last president and vice-president, a husband and wife team had moved to St. Augustine from a small town in Michigan. There was a difference in culture, The wife later wrote, “Being raised in a small town, it was a shock to live and drive in such a large city.” The Jaycees broke up. The husband and wife team moved to Georgia. A fiesta which had lasted over 100 years became a memory.

Recipe for Fromajardis

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable shortening
8 to 19 tablespoons cold water
4 large eggs
1/2 pound shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 teaspoon minced datil pepper

Mix the flour, nutmeg, and salt until blended. Add shortening in spoonfuls and cut it in with two table knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add 2 tablespoons water. Blend thoroughly with a fork Add remaining cold water by the tablespoon, using only enough to make the dough cling together. Gather into a ball, wrap in waxed paper, and refrigerate while preparing the filling, or refrigerate up to 24 hours.

For the filling, beat the eggs then stir in the cheese and datil. Roll out the dough, half at a time, in sheets 1/8 inch thick. Cut in rounds with a 3- to 6-inch cutter. Drop in the center of each round 1 teaspoonful filling for small size pastries, two teaspoons for larger pastries. Fold over to half-moon shapes. Flute with tines of a fork. Cut across the top of each pastry with sharp knife. Place on un-greased baking sheets. Brush with butter, sprinkle with sugar and paprika. Bake 10 minutes in preheated oven at 350 F.or until crisp and pale brown. Move to the top rack of the oven and bake 2 to 3 minutes longer to brown. The filling will ooze though the cuts on top. Serve warm or hot.

Next week: Buddy Hough and the Ordinance of Doom.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer and a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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