By Geoff Dobson
The discussion of an upcoming Grand Celebration came up for discussion at coffee the other day. Judging from letters to the editors of various newspapers, the coffee discussion was not alone. As the discussion waxed and waned through its predictable course, the writer’s mind wandered into memories of celebrations of the past.
Before the days of television and other diversions, annual Grand Celebrations were popular in all small towns. It was a matter of civic pride. They usually centered on the Fourth of July, the opening of the annual rodeo, County Fair, or an annual pageant.
The annual pageant would center on some legendary aspect of local history or a local crop. There were innumerable watermelon festivals, a Strawberry Festival, a Billy Bowlegs Festival, the Spanish Trail Festival, and the Springtime Tallahassee Festival. Indeed, the writer was at one time the corporate secretary for the Levy County Peanut Exposition.
The annual Grand Celebration was usually led off by the Grand Parade. The Grand Parade was headed by the Sheriff’s Posse and followed by numerous bands. The bands not only came from the local high school, but also the schools in neighboring towns. Floats constructed by local civic and fraternal organizations were a feature. Both local and regional businesses would have floats featuring their business.
Units came from other towns advertising their annual pageant. St. Augustine used to send a carriage to Tampa for the annual Gasparilla Celebration. There are always unintended hilarious moments in a celebration. We all laughed when the good ship Jose Gaspar sank. Of course it wasn’t funny to those on board.
The Winn and Lovett Grocery Company usually had an elaborate float which went from town to town advertising their “Margaret Ann” Supermarkets. I always thought it a shame that Winn and Lovett changed their name to Winn Dixie. The old name had panache; sort of like the old Miami law firm of Ruff and Ready. Both John Ruff and his partner Thomas J. Ready are no longer with us — gone to the Great Courtroom in the Sky.
While leading off the parade with the posse made a wonderful first impression, it caused a certain difficulty with the bands that followed. The writer remembers following the elephants in high school. They make a mess of streets far worse than horses.
The professional floats were prettier, but the local floats were far more interesting. One knew the persons on the float and the business it was advertising. One memorable float in one annual “Bots Sots” parade in Sheridan, Wyoming, in the days before everyone had inside bathrooms, was one advertising “Emergency Relief.” It featured a “sanitary privy” which could be built on one’s property.
In Basin, Wyoming, Cassell & Cassell plumbers one year had a float which displayed a complete inside bathroom which one could have installed.
St. Augustine always had multiple parades. There was the annual Easter Parade and the annual Christmas Parade. The horses pulling the carriages in the Easter Parade would have wonderful hats and bonnets.
Interest in parades has waned as has interest in the annual pageants. The last parade held in St. Augustine had no bands.
Indian maidens and blood are always good for a pageant. St. Augustine’s pageant was Cross and Sword. According to the legend, Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés comes to the “land of flowers,” to prevent the French from succeeding in their own colony. In the land of flowers, accompanied by much music and Indians dancing around a totem, Don Pedro falls in love with Notina, an Indian princess. Regrettably, Menéndez is already married. Rather than violate his marriage vows, he makes war on the Timucuans and, to boot, kills the French. He then goes back to Spain for supplies.
Cross and Sword has been discontinued as has Sarasota’s Sara de Soto pageant. One proposal for the upcoming Grand Celebration is to bring back Cross and Sword.
Sara de Soto was the legendary (and entirely fictitious) daughter of Hernando de Soto, the early explorer of Florida. According to the legend, De Soto’s men captured an Indian Prince, named Chichi-Okobee who fell ill. De Soto’s daughter nursed him back to health. She then fell ill and Chichi-Okobee asked if he could bring some medicine men to nurse her back to health.
Unfortunately, by the time he returned with tribal medicine men, she had died. Chichi-Okobee, with 100 braves, buried her body in Sarasota Bay and then sank their canoes in the waters, vowing to protect Sara de Soto in eternity, thereby possibly accounting for the naming of Sarasota Bay. It is believed that the name Sarasota may come from a Calusa word whose meaning may be Point of Rocks or Place of the Dance. The Sara de Soto pageant is now gone, and Sara must now rely on the EPA for her protection rather than one hundred Indian braves recruited from local civic organizations.
But as we take ourselves more seriously, local pageants die since they are by many regarded as quite tacky. After all, we must present our history accurately. One town that continues to carry on with its Indian pageant is Lusk, Wyoming, a town of approximately 1500 population some 50 miles from the next town of consequence.
Lusk annually puts on the Legend of Rawhide. According to the “Legend,” a wagon train passed through the area in June of 1849 on the way to the gold fields of California. A young man in the train, having vowed to kill the first Indian he saw, shot and killed an Indian maiden. The Indians were, quite naturally, upset about this turn of events and demanded that the culprit be turned over to them. The wagon party, not believing that one of their members would have done such a thing, refused. The Indians attacked and were repelled. The Indians attacked again and then unexpectedly withdraw with wild war-whoops; for the young man had given himself up to save the train. The Indians skinned him alive, thus, accounting for the quite apocryphal naming of nearby Rawhide Creek and Rawhide Buttes. In actuality, the name of Rawhide Creek and Buttes comes from a mountain-man term for un-tanned beaver pelt.
The point involved is that a Grand Celebration should be fun and put on by locals in order to have fun. If it is fun, the festival will be a success. The grandest rodeo in the country, bigger than the Calgary Stampede, is Cheyenne’s Frontier Days which is held in the last week of July each year. It is now 113 years old. When the first one was held, the editor of the Wyoming Tribune complained: “There are some features of such a program that do not meet with approbation of all. . . . Our visitors know that the stage holdup, the vigilantes and the ox team departed from our boundaries a generation ago. . . .The influence of Frontier Day is not elevating in character.” His opinion was ignored. Stage holdups, vigilantes and ox teams continued to be a major part of the Grand Celebration. The Denver Post sponsors a special excursion train to Cheyenne to bring in the thousands.
The festivals which do not take themselves seriously such as the Legend of Rawhide continue.
Don’t plan on the festival to result in a permanent increase in tourism or industry. Pensacola has learned that lesson. Last year, Pensacola completed its 450 day celebration of its 450th anniversary as the “first settlement” in the United States.
The King and Queen of Spain came, tall ships came.
Pensacola has two forts. In order to get to Ft. Pickens, one must now walk or swim. To get to Ft. Barrancas, one must go through military security.
At least St. Augustinians can get to both of our two forts.
“A visit from King Juan Carlos I is the highlight of the city’s year-long celebration,” predicted Mayor John Fogg. “His visit will bring the city international attention, confirming the significance of Pensacola’s place in history as North America’s first major European settlement.”
St. Augustine’s significance was, of course, downgraded. J. Earle Bowden, a former editor of the Pensacola News-Journal, commented, “St. Augustine … all they’ve got is that little Spanish town — it never grew much.”
Pensacola has discovered the 450-day Grand Celebration has had no lasting impact.
Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. 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 email@example.com