Mardis Gras In Minden 1923
by John Agan
The tradition of celebrating Mardi Gras began in Minden after the Civil War, about the time the celebration became so large in New Orleans. By the early years of the twentieth century the celebration of Mardi Gras was a special occasion in Minden. Beginning around 1902 the festivities grew in size each year until 85 years ago this week, February 13, 1923, when one of the worst tragedies in the history of our town occurred during a Mardi Gras celebration. On the occasion of that anniversary, Today I am rerunning an Echo of our Past that first appeared five years ago which examines the history of Mardi Gras in Minden with a focus on the Mardi Gras fire of 1923 which brought an end to the first era of large-scale celebration of Fat Tuesday in our town.
Although there are surviving images of local celebrations from the late 19th century, one of the first written references to the local Mardi Gras celebrations dates from Friday, February 14, 1902, when the Webster Signal carried the following account: "Tuesday was Mardi Gras day and the very spirit of carnival gaieties extended far and near. The street pageants were more gorgeous than ever and the balls were brilliant social events
Each year the celebration grew as photos show the parades with the royalty wearing gowns and formal wear traveling through downtown in open cars, while wagons and trucks were used as crude floats. Events were scheduled for all ages and the parades were always staged on the actual day of Fat Tuesday. The schools were dismissed for the day, as the festivities included a day full of fun and games for the children.
In 1917 on Friday, February 16, the Webster Signal reported: "Mardi Gras will be celebrated next Tuesday beginning with a grand parade at 2:30. Everybody is invited to take part and join in the parade. The Civic Clubs offer two prizes of $2.50 each for the best decorated automobile and vehicle consisting of carriage, buggy, wagon, etc."
"An evening entertainment will be given at the picture show consisting of crowning the queen and several very enjoyable numbers of home talent as well as a choice 4-reel picture will be presented. The entertainment will begin at 7:30 - 35 cents for grown-ups and 15 cents for children. The parade is to be formed near the compress. Everybody cordially invited to join in the parade and don't forget the evening's entertainment at 7:30 at the picture show."
On Thursday, February 10, 1921, the Webster Signal announced: "the high school has combined Mardi Gras queen with Valentine queen to be held February l4th at Minden High School."
Also in 1921 the following account appeared in the Webster Signal: "Mardi Gras has always been an occasion of much festivities in Minden, but seldom has more enthusiasm and true enjoyment been exhibited than on this year. The old and young alike took part in the masking, making the afternoon and evening affairs much more spectacular. Never before has there been such a variety of costumes for knights and ladies and natives of every country were there in plenty. Little children of every size and age contributed to the spirit of the day and were extremely happy in their bright colored effective costumes. The afternoon from 3 to 5 o'clock was their time. On account of the rain it was impossible to have the parade. However, the crowd gathered in the American Legion Hall where an excellent program was rendered. (At that time the "American Legion Hall was the third floor of the Crichton Hardware Building, the current American Legion Home was not built until 1950.) It was there that the lovely little Queen and her chosen King were crowned with all due to honor and dignity. The throne was most attractive indeed, in all the regal tapestry and canopy. It was there that Mary Lewis Fort, as the most popular little girl, was crowned Queen of the younger set and Elliot Howe was crowned King.
"Roy Miller (later Mrs. J. Lenwood Inabnett) and Nancy Belle Lee, ladies-in-waiting, escorted by the knights of the court - Minden Fitzgerald and Clarence Wiley (who later served as Webster Parish Clerk of Court for many years). Page was Wilbur Lowe, Crown-bearer was Ethel Moore. A dance was performed by Gwendolyn Youngblood, while Tom Glass was a clown; Connell Dupuy, James Reagan and Ben Wiley contributed a minstrel act. Ivan Lowe and Zoulana Barnett came as Maggie and Jiggs, followed by a grand march and refreshments. Proceeds went to the Civic Clubs.
"Evening program was a combination program and a dance. Queen was Miss Beatrice Lee, Daughter of Mrs. J. B. Lee. (In later years, she married Eugene Houston and moved to Bossier City. Her son was the late country music star David Houston.) The King was Eddie Bryan (the husband of Mrs. Elsie Bryan and the father of Mrs. Jo Ann McKinney), son of Mr. and Mrs. W. T. Bryan (he was chosen by the Queen). Their attendants were: Mabel Life and H. L. Bridges; Maurice Barnes and Julian Means; Katherine Lunsford and Louie Bryan. Little James Nelson sang 'Hail to the King and Queen.' James Knighton served as Jester and Wilbur Lowe was the crown bearer."
The band was composed of J. N. Koch, Leland Mims (long-time Webster Parish Police Juror), Courtland Murph, and Earl Looney (who later gained international fame as an artist). Miss Esther Evans (later daughter-in-law of Congressman John N. Sandlin) gave readings entitled "Just a Wearying for You" and "French Doll." Miss Gladys Durham's dance pupils - Sybil Winn, Nina Wiley, Olive Roberts, Dorothy Goodwill, Treeby Miller and Maud Dickens performed interpretive dance. (Please notice the name Olive Roberts, that was the mother of former Governor Mike Foster, and Treeby Miller was the mother of Thad Andress.) Mrs. Walter Webb, Jr., (Postmistress of Minden) who was dressed as an Irish Lassie and Attorney W. W. McDonald dressed as winter, won the best costumes. After expenses the Civic Club donated the proceeds to the starving children of Europe.
In 1922, Mardi Gras was observed on Tuesday February 28. Attendance in the 3 - 6 year section were: Miss Martha McDade, Queen; Mr. Harry McInnis, King; Knights were Aubrey Hough and Wilkins McDade; Rollin Williams, Jr. was Crown-Bearer; Thomas Crichton, Jr. and McVoy McIntyre were Train Bearers; Rolene Rathbun (later Mrs. Davidson Brown who taught English at Minden High School for many years) and Jane Goodwill were Maids; Horace Thomasson was Jester and Ernest Smith was the Herald.
The program was as following: Crowning of the Queen, and an Orchestra Selection; Dance by Louise Denmon. There was a balloon dance by: Rolene Rathbun, Mable Ruth Coombs, Jane Goodwill, and Jamie Garrison. The Blue Bird Dance was performed by Onie Stephens, Virginia Bullock, Virginia Miles, Nancy Belle Lee, Roy Miller (Mrs. Inabnett), Pauline Dickens, Ruth Reagan, Ida B. Mixon and Leila Sandefur.
There were sketches from childhood, with the artist Helen Nelson. The following children acted the parts of the five senses: Sight - Grace Virginia Rathbun; Touch - David Williams; Smell - Ann Howe; Taste - Jimmie Chaffe; Hearing - Sallie Hutton (later the wife of Dr. C. S. Sentell) A chorus was sung "Ain't We Got Fun." A dance ensued. That evening King James Davis and Queen Maude Dickens were crowned. Lords and Ladies were: Burgess White and Dorothy Goodwill and Earl Looney and Treeby Miller. Crown bearer was Robert Semmes Webb; Train bearers were Jack Connell (local dentist for many years) and Laura Harkness; Jester was Horace Thomasson; Herald was Ernest Smith. The program consisted of a selection by the "Beer Bottle Band" trained to play the bottle by Mrs. J. B. Snell (Ada Jack Carver) and led by Elliot Howe. The Gypsy Trail was a dance and song in costume by: Gladys Durham, Helen Brown, Jessie Mae Sullivan, Marjorie Ogden, Susanella Schoenbrodt (who taught elementary grades in Minden for over 30 years), Valrae Farrar (Mrs. N. C. Strange) Jacqueline Taylor (Mrs. Will Davis), Miriam Fuller and Ruth Mims.
Also Miss Mabel Hickman (the following year, 1923, she lost her life in the fire at the Mardi Gras program) gave a reading. A minstrel comedy was performed by Charles Dutton, Wood Brown, Robert Watkins (later City Judge), John Fort (who ran the local newsstand for so many years), Mack Dunlap and H. L. Bridges (son of one of Minden's mayors). The Glow Worm Dance line included Lilla Stewart, Ruby McDonald, Eugenie Burt (she was another casualty of the fire the next year at the Mardi Gras program) Mary Em Phillips, Georgia Howe and Nell Gray. Piano selection by Mrs. L. H. Denmon and an Irish song and dance by Ruth Mims, along with History of the Dance by Mabel Winn and Dan Stewart (later a local attorney). Miss Zenia Fuller and Lillian McCoy in gypsy costumes had a fortune telling tent. The Civic Club committee was composed of Mrs. R. A. Baker, Mrs. Donald Goodwill, Mrs. Felix Drake, Jr., Mrs. A. D. Turner, Mrs. Joe R. Miller, Mrs. W. B. Wiley and Mrs. P. A. Rathbun. The Civic Club received the proceeds from this event.
But the Mardi Gras event of 1923 was not the happy occasion it had been in prior years, rather it was the cause of sadness and mourning here in Minden for many years. The Bossier Banner (Minden papers for the period of time from November 1922 through May of 1923 were lost) of February 15, 1923, carried the following account of the tragedy. "Keenest regret is felt here in Benton because of a tragedy of the week occurring in Minden. Tuesday night eight young ladies of that place who were taking part in a Mardi Gras play, and a little girl of eight years who was behind the scenery on the stage, were severely burned and four of them have since died. The dead are Miss Dorothy Cheshire, a daughter of Mrs. Dolly Cheshire, a former resident of North Bossier, Miss Eugenie Burt, Miss Mabel Hickman, ranging in age from sixteen to seventeen years in age, and the little girl who was mentioned above, Eva Eleanor Lowe, whose clothes were ignited as the older girls ran by her. The names of the others burned are: Miss Ruth Reagan (we know her as Mrs. Ruth Reagan Baird who gave so many years of service at the Webster Parish Library), Miss Vashti Bullock, Miss Vallye Watson, Miss Alma Sullivan and Miss Eloise Hough, aged from fifteen to seventeen years. The fire originated when the dress of Miss Alma Sullivan caught fire from a sparkler, which was being used to enhance the effect of a snow scene in the culminating act of a snow scene of a Mardi Gras play. The other girls ran to the assistance of their companion and their dresses caught fire from the flames of her dress. The play was being held in the Minden High School auditorium under the auspices of Civic Clubs of Minden. The girls ran from a single exit trying to escape the flames. The wind, as they ran, fanned the flames. Their dresses were of flimsy material, bearing specks of cotton in imitation of snow. Young men ran after the girls and tried to extinguish the flames. However they were all badly burned and others are expected to die." Another girl later succumbed to burns received that night, bringing the dead to five from the fire.
This fire took place in the 1910 high school building that was on the site of the present Minden high school. Sorrow stunned our community. Witnesses described seeing the balls of fire outside the window of the auditorium but did not know that was the girls with their dresses aflame. The next morning people were gathered in groups of two and three all along the streets, each group talking over the events that caused such sadness in Minden. Mrs. Lenwood Inabnett was there that night. She has said that they had daubed the cotton with black shoe polish to make it look like ermine. That shoe polish made it even more volatile. Those who were burned but lived bore the terrible burn scars for the remainder of their lives. The memories are still vivid with those who were here at that time.
The picture that accompanies this article was made available to me by Cynthia Garrison Payne, who inherited it from her aunt, Jamie Craton Garrison. Jamie Garrison was a participant in the pageant in 1923 and this picture shows the cast of the pageant in an image taken on the afternoon of February 13, 1923, just prior to the fire.
In aftermath of this tragedy, Mardi Gras celebrations in Minden came to a complete halt for a few years. On the first anniversary of the fire, the local paper carried no mention of Mardi Gras celebrations, only a poem dedicated to the memory of those who had perished on February 13, 1923. Later smaller scale celebrations were held, but World War II brought an end to local Mardi Gras celebrations until the very recent past. So while our history does have many happy memories of past Mardi Gras celebrations, there is one poignant, haunting Echo of Our Past from Mardi Gras eighty-five years ago, 1923.