Mardi Gras in the Sunshine State

Think Mardi Gras is something that only happens in New Orleans? Think again! Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” has been celebrated in many parts of the world at one time or another, including right here in Florida. And it isn’t a recent phenomenon. Some Florida towns were holding Mardi Gras celebrations over a hundred years ago.

Mardi Gras celebrants in Milton in Santa Rosa County, complete with royalty. Milton celebrated its first Mardi Gras 100 years ago this year (photo 1916).

Mardi Gras celebrants in Milton in Santa Rosa County, complete with royalty. Milton celebrated its first Mardi Gras 100 years ago this year (photo 1916).

Mardi Gras, for all its characteristic decadence, actually stems from religious origins. It is the final, culminating day of the Carnival season on the Christian liturgical calendar. Carnival season extends from Epiphany (also known as Twelfth Night or Three Kings’ Day) to the beginning of the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday, which occurs about six weeks prior to Easter Sunday. Since the Lenten season typically involves a sober regimen of self-denial and penance, Carnival season and Mardi Gras serve as an opportunity to eat richly and celebrate joyously (hence the “fat” part of Fat Tuesday) before things get more serious.

Mardi Gras in Pensacola (1977).

Mardi Gras in Pensacola (1977).

A wide variety of colorful rituals and traditions have developed around this basic concept, many unique to the cities in which they were born. Common Mardi Gras activities include parades, costume balls, colorful decorations, and the designation of “royalty” to preside over the festivities. When Apalachicola celebrated its first Mardi Gras in 1915, for example, the event was reigned over by King Retsyo. Ten points if you can guess the significance of King Retsyo’s name!

King Retsyo ascends to his throne during Apalachicola's first Mardi Gras celebration in 1915.

King Retsyo ascends to his throne during Apalachicola’s first Mardi Gras celebration in 1915.

Apalachicola Mardi Gras parade (1915).

Apalachicola Mardi Gras parade (1915).

Lester Buer and Myra Franc Kaplan dressed in costume for Mardi Gras celebrations in Pensacola (circa 1916).

Lester Buer and Myra Franc Kaplan dressed in costume for Mardi Gras celebrations in Pensacola (circa 1916).

Pensacola was perhaps the first Florida city to observe Mardi Gras, holding its first celebration in 1874. A group of leading local socialites formed a Mardi Gras “krewe” called the Knights of Priscus Association to organize the festivities. The tradition fizzled after a few years, but was revived with gusto in 1900. Pensacola continues to celebrate Mardi Gras annually.

Pensacola's Mardi Gras celebration of 1900 included the crowning of King Priscus, better known as local attorney Alexander Clement Blount, II.

Pensacola’s Mardi Gras celebration of 1900 included the crowning of King Priscus, better known as local attorney Alexander Clement Blount, II.

Today, Mardi Gras is celebrated in cities all over Florida, featuring a blend of time-honored traditions and new ideas. Apalachicola, for example, recently instituted a Mardi Gras parade featuring both citizens and their pets. The event is spearheaded by the Krewe of Salty Barkers, adopting themes like “Barkaritaville” and “Woofstock” to guide both two- and four-legged participants in their costume choices.

One of the merrymakers at Apalachicola's Mardi Gras parade organized by the Krewe of Salty Barkers (2015). Photo courtesy of the Krewe of Salty Barkers.

One of the merrymakers at Apalachicola’s Mardi Gras parade organized by the Krewe of Salty Barkers (2015). Photo courtesy of the Krewe of Salty Barkers.

Farther down the peninsula, Orlando’s Universal Studios theme park offers an annual Mardi Gras event patterned after the popular New Orleans version of the festival. Hollywood also holds an annual Mardi Gras celebration titled “Fiesta Tropicale.” It originated in 1935 as the “Festival of Nations.” These are just a few examples; Florida towns from Dunedin to Lake Wales to Leesburg regularly celebrate Fat Tuesday with enthusiasm.

Mardi Gras celebration at the American Legion in Tampa (1926).

Mardi Gras celebration at the American Legion in Tampa (1926).

Does your Florida community do something special to celebrate Mardi Gras? If so, we want to know about it! Leave us a comment below, and don’t forget to share this post on Facebook and Twitter!

Florida’s First Steam-Powered Railway

On September 5, 1836, the Lake Wimico & St. Joseph Railroad ran its first train from the Apalachicola River to St. Joseph. It took about 25 minutes to move the eight cars and 300 passengers along the eight-mile stretch of track. An enthusiastic crowd met the train at its destination, delighted in both the local and statewide implications of this short voyage. In addition to boosting the local economy, the Lake Wimico & St. Joseph Railroad had the honor of being the first steam-powered railroad to operate in Florida.

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Florida Seafood Festival (November 1-2, 2013)

The Florida Seafood Festival in Apalachicola celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2013! The annual two-day festival features royalty (Miss Florida and King Retsyo), fresh Florida seafood, and more.

Palmer Philyaw, 1969

Palmer Philyaw, 1969

 

Bradie Parrish and Palmer Philyaw working on a fishing net, 1969

Bradie Parrish and Palmer Philyaw working on a fishing net, 1969

 

Mary Helen Marshall, Miss Florida Seafood Festival, 1970

Mary Helen Marshall, Miss Florida Seafood Festival, 1970

 

Papa Toranto, Miss Florida Seafood Festival Lisa Barber, and Anthony Toranto, 1971

Papa Toranto, Miss Florida Seafood Festival Lisa Barber, and Anthony Toranto, 1971

 

Oyster shucking contest, 1973

Oyster shucking contest, 1973

 

Miss Florida Seafood Festival Rosalie Nichols and an unidentified man, 1974

Miss Florida Seafood Festival Rosalie Nichols and an unidentified man, 1974

 

Blessing of the fleet, 1986

Blessing of the fleet, 1986

 

Bob Jones as "King Retsyo," 1986

Bob Jones as “King Retsyo,” 1986

Fourth of July Celebrations in Florida

Join a parade in Deland in 1884. Then head to Daytona Beach in 1896. After an eating contest in 1905, try your luck at a greased pole climbing contest in 1989!

Fourth of July parade on Boulevard Street: DeLand, Florida (1884)

 

Fourth of July celebration on the beach: Daytona Beach, Florida (1896)

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Oystering in Apalachicola

Oyster tonging

Oyster tonging

Oystering communities around the world take pride in the quality and freshness of their succulent bivalves, and Apalachicola is no exception. With its brackish waters and calm winds, Apalachicola Bay is a prime setting for both oysters and the industry built around them to thrive.

Young boy enjoying oyster at the Florida Seafood Festival - Apalachicola, Florida

Young boy enjoying oyster at the Florida Seafood Festival – Apalachicola, Florida

The people of Apalachicola possess skills, beliefs, and a spirit of generosity and perseverance that make the community unique. Crafts such as boat building or oyster tong making are passed down through generations, as are techniques for harvesting and shucking the oysters. Successful seafood distributors make the product available to the many restaurants and retailers in the region, and the community celebrates its heritage during the annual Florida Seafood Festival.

Miss Florida Seafood 1974, Rosalie Nichols, at the Florida Seafood Festival

Miss Florida Seafood 1974, Rosalie Nichols, at the Florida Seafood Festival

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John Gorrie and Mechanical Refrigeration

Perhaps no one is more responsible for the growth of southern Florida’s population than
Apalachicola’s Dr. John Gorrie.

Wealthy industrialists certainly played an important role, financing and building railroads, hotels and golf courses to entice hordes of tourists to venture south during the winter months. But what about the sweltering summer heat? Boosters pined for a solution that could perhaps convert winter tourists into permanent residents.

Portrait of Dr. John Gorrie

Portrait of Dr. John Gorrie

Enter Dr. John Gorrie. His contribution came, appropriately, at the beginning of summer, in May of 1851, when he patented an ice-making machine. Gorrie’s goals were medicinal, and his machine helped to lessen the suffering of yellow fever victims.

The invention of mechanical refrigeration also became the basis for air-conditioning in the 20th century. If not for Gorrie’s invention, Florida may have remained a winter destination instead of a year-round paradise.

Model of the first ice machine displayed at the John Gorrie Museum: Apalachicola, Florida (1955)

Model of the first ice machine displayed at the John Gorrie Museum: Apalachicola, Florida (1955)

March 1862: Invasion!

Florida and the Civil War

This is the second in a series of monthly posts commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Florida’s role in the American Civil War.

March 1862: Invasion!

The arrival of a Union invasion fleet off Amelia Island on March 3, 1862, was a startling but not unexpected event. As early as October 1861, Governor John Milton notified neighboring Confederate governors that a Union invasion fleet was steaming southward for a possible landing in Florida. Although the fleet’s target at that time was Port Royal, South Carolina, not Florida, ships from the flotilla eventually transported the Union expeditionary force that descended on Amelia Island in March.

Map of the harbor at Fernandina (1862)

Map of the harbor at Fernandina (1862)

For months, east coast Confederate and Unionist Floridians had expected Federal troops to land in Florida. Although a Federal raiding party occupied the Gulf port of Cedar Key in January 1862, under orders from General Robert E. Lee, General James H. Trapier, the commander of Confederate forces in the Department of Middle and East Florida (the area from the Atlantic to the Choctawhatchee River in the west), concentrated the bulk of his forces for the defense of Amelia Island. Meanwhile in Jacksonville, a city with a strong Unionist element, pro-Union men and women awaited the liberation of their city, where many of them were threatened by secessionist vigilance committees.

By March 1862, however, the Unionists had more cause for optimism than the secessionists. Confederate defeats in Tennessee during February resulted in the Richmond government’s decision to withdraw its troops from Florida to reinforce Tennessee. As the Union fleet approached, General Trapier ordered the withdrawal of his troops from Amelia Island. On March 4, the Federals occupied Fernandina after the last train carrying troops and fleeing civilians crossed the bridge to the mainland under the fire of the USS Ottawa, a Union gunboat. Fernandina remained under Union control for the rest of the war and became a place of refuge for hundreds of escaped slaves from Florida and southeast Georgia.

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February 1862: Florida the Undefended

Florida and the Civil War

This is the first in a series of monthly posts commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Florida’s role in the American Civil War.

February 1862: Florida the Undefended

Florida’s precarious position on the periphery of the Confederacy became even more exposed in February 1862, when the Confederate government ordered the withdrawal of all but a handful of the Confederate forces in Florida.

9th Mississippi unit: Pensacola (1861)

9th Mississippi unit: Pensacola (1861)

This decision came in the wake of a series of Union victories during the first half of the month. Federal troops in Tennessee under the command of Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant captured Forts Henry and Donelson on February 6 and 16 respectively. In between those victories, on February 8, a Union naval force captured Roanoke Island off the North Carolina coast.

These victories resulted in the surrender of thousands of Confederate troops and opened the way for Union thrusts into the Confederate interior, especially in the West, where Grant advanced south towards Mississippi. A shocked and dispirited Confederate government rushed to reinforce the West by withdrawing Confederate troops from Florida.

On February 18, Richmond ordered General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate army at Pensacola, to withdraw his units and send them to Tennessee as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, on Florida’s east coast, General Robert E. Lee began preparations to remove most of the forces under his command. At this stage of the war, Lee was responsible for the defense of the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and East Florida. On February 24, the Confederate War Department ordered Lee to transfer units under his command in Florida to Tennessee. He was only to keep enough troops in Florida to block Union entry into the St. Johns River and for the defense of Apalachicola: the Confederate government feared Union capture of Apalachicola could result in an invasion of Georgia from the south.

General Robert E. Lee (1860s)

General Robert E. Lee (1860s)

By the end of the month, Florida was virtually defenseless as a Union flotilla carrying an invasion force approached the coast.