Part I In This Series – Origin of the Festival
Imagine if you will: A week-long celebration that would bring the people of St. Pete, tourists, and visitors together, could be enjoyed by everyone, and that would encourage people of all stripes to come out of the woodwork for days of fun, competition, and camaraderie. Add in captivating and thrilling events, a carnival atmosphere, contests, awards, parades with splendid floats – a feast for the senses! For many years that very event happened here in St. Petersburg. The celebration was among the most notable in Florida and in fact garnered fame even nationally. Of course we are talking about the much ballyhooed and heavily advertised Festival of States. More than just a parade, the festival was a multi-day programmed pageant meant to be enjoyed by all. But when did it begin and why?
The Origin of the Festival of States
We need to cast our historical net back to 1917 to find the origin of the Festival of States, but perhaps first we should take a paragraph or two to dig back a little bit further to acknowledge that there was a predecessor. In early St. Pete before the days of significant tourism the town celebrated Washington’s Birthday. Schoolchildren, veterans, and musicians marched in an annual parade along Central Avenue to celebrate the holiday while working citizens got the day off to come out and support the marchers. It was really what we might call a small town affair; one day of limited hooplah focused solely on patriotism. If a Washington’s Birthday parade was held today, it would be in rural Indiana with some guy driving that odd antique tractor that would never pass any sort of emissions test. But by 1917 the early years were fading and St. Pete was growing. The cohesive Washington’s B-day parade had sort of devolved into school pageants, half-day office closings and specials on the ferry trips to points of interest like Pass-a-Grille and Bradenton. St. Pete was changing rapidly toward the end of World War I and the old down-homey celebration simply wasn’t keeping up with the newly cosmopolitan and touristy scene that St. Pete was rapidly becoming. Plus, there were other considerations and needs in the growing town.
Enter the Festival Committee
In February of 1917, a group of about 75 business people got together for a meeting in the building that housed the WTIA, the women’s group that worked tirelessly to improve early St. Pete. This was a notably large gathering for the time, and the purpose was to discuss and take action on the idea of a celebration in St. Pete – something grand. But why? That’s an interesting question.
Business people wanted to attract more visitors to St. Pete, and also extend the winter tourist season. It served their personal business interests but more broadly would benefit the growing tourist-focused economy of St. Petersburg as a whole. After all, a rising tide would lift all boats. That’s why the meeting was so well attended; shopkeepers, restaurateurs, boat captains… everyone was looking for ways to do more business and everybody was interested in the idea.
But there were other concerns as well. Most notably, an annual event and celebration had been recently initiated in Tampa. The Tampans named it “Gasparilla” or something like that. You may have heard of it. And it was causing some concern in St. Pete. Most troubling was that even though the event in Tampa was still in its infancy at the time, many tourists had decided to make Gasparilla the first stop on their trek home. It was held in February, which left plenty of pleasant days for tourist season. The Gandy bridge didn’t exist yet, and the trip to and from Tampa was laborious. If a visitor went to Tampa at the end of the season, they probably weren’t driving back. Beyond that, the idea of letting Tampa get all the attention just wasn’t sitting well with the powers that be in St. Pete. An annual celebration that was scheduled a bit later – the end of March – would encourage tourists to stay a few weeks longer and also give St. Pete an edge up on bragging rights.
So at this February 1917 meeting a committee was formed, the chairman being none other Al Lang, St. Pete’s famous “Mr. Baseball” and the mayor at the time. Other noteworthy business people from the city made up the rest of the board and committee that would plan the event, and plan it quickly. A lot came from the meeting and wheels were put into motion. So here is where things get a little interesting.
How the Festival of States Got It’s Name
At the meeting, a talent scout and acquaintance of Mayor Lang, one Captain Neal, offered up the Festival of States name and the general strategy of how the celebration might be advertised. Neal’s idea was really a good one — get tourists involved with the pageantry and they would have a vested interest in it. Creating contests and friendly competition between groups came naturally as well since there were already so many state-based tourist societies in town. Neal also suggested looking to the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans as a model for the end of the weekly events. The Festival of States idea was roundly accepted by the attendees, and the name was agreed. Much of the rest of the foundation of the event was settled that evening; the idea of a weeklong celebration, a program of events, days dedicated to specific types of activities like boats and aquatics, golf and tennis, a carnival, and more. One of the more colorful, yet slightly pretentious ideas came from one Mrs. McCrea who had penned her own idea for the celebration.
Mrs. McCrea offered up the idea of some sort of stage (a tableau, if you will) arising from the water of Tampa Bay, replete with an entire pantheon of Greek Gods and Goddesses to begin the celebration. The waterlogged and presumably toga clad troupe would rise from the depths, then lead a soggy procession through the mystical streets of the ‘Burg. At the time the idea didn’t gain a lot of traction, but maybe Mrs. McCrea was simply a bit ahead of her time. My mind has immediately gone to the still somewhat popular yet campy scene of Mermaids doing stuff at Weeki Watchee Springs. Honestly I’ve been there to see it and am not 100% sure I’ll be back, but hey, it’s been popular for like 50 years. So what do I know. Anyhow. Back to our story.
A Rolling Celebration Gathers No Moss
One might think a week long affair that involved many moving parts, days of programming and not one but two parades would take a while to plan. But St. Pete’s leaders decided in that meeting that the iron was hot, and they wanted to do it before tourist season ended that year. It mean the whole thing would need to be coordinated, funded, set up and executed in about a month’s time. That’s what they set out to do, with the date for the newly minted Festival of States to occur at the end of March. That gave them about six weeks to pull it off. People got cracking.
For a celebration that would be in any way respectable the committee putting on the affair needed to first build enthusiasm and get some people out there creating buzz around the big event. Today, an ad placed for people that could do just that may be filled with words like “enthusiastic” and “energetic” and maybe even “charismatic” but back in 1917 you didn’t need to mince words or read between any lines. The board wanted women to sell this thing. And more specifically young, pretty women were the ideal candidates to get the ball rolling. Luckily, as we read here, there were no shortage in St. Pete.
Of course many other less publicly facing roles were filled. A “town decorator” was hired from New Orleans to set the stage for the big parade that would happen along Central Avenue. Bunting. Flags. One thousand pounds of confetti. Then of course prize money was raised to award to those exceptional, winning parade floats that would be built by each participating state or individual. The program was agreed, and things actually came together. A big part of that was the genius of getting everyone in town to pitch in; by allowing anyone to participate and suggesting some competition between states people may have stopped playing horseshoes in William’s Park for a while and started working on their parade floats. Central Avenue was decorated by the town and also by enthusiastic businesses starting at the Recreational Pier (this was the precursor to the Million Dollar Pier) all the way to 9th Street along Central. Ads started to appear almost immediately.
Mixing Business and Pleasure
As noted above, selling stuff, encouraging people to stay until after March, and advertising the event itself were priorities for the growing town. Everyone pitched in, and it seemed that advertising encouraging everything mentioned above was in gear. In fact, one ad seen below informs the reader that going home early means a good chance of dying in a blizzard. Seriously. Here is a smattering of ads from the three-pronged strategy.
The Festival of States – A Huge Success
Although the plans were made hastily, there were some incredible events and immense participation in the four-day long festival of 1917. Some of the more noteworthy items may even surprise you. Like what?
Johnny Green the Aviator Does Dangerous Stuff
First, Johnny Green, a very notable pilot and businessman in St. Pete (who had worked with Tony Jannus but stayed here running his own aviation business long after the Benoist company had exited) decided to do a couple Florida-man-ish stunts. A dogfight with the city itself was one, and shooting fireworks from his airplane (named Betty) was the other. Both seem somewhat dangerous, but in 1917 that was fine. And I bet he had no lack of dates for the evening.
Of Course, There Was the Coronation of the King and Queen
Next up, what would a fantastic pageant be without a crowned king and queen? Everyone got a chance to vote, and honestly there were more votes for this than, say, the previous mayoral race. But speaking of, darn it! If you read my stuff, you know I like to write about Noel Mitchell. He was everywhere at once and never the winner of anything it seemed. As it turns out a guy named Bub James edged out our future antihero mayor Mr. Mitchell as king, and Ida Batt got queen. But heck, the procession! Read about the crowning below.
Two Parades – And Some Drama!
Of course back in 1917 parades were all the rage, and two fine parades were offered. The first was for individuals who had decorated their own vehicles and chose to participate in what was billed as the “Tourist Parade.” The second, and aptly named “Grand Royal Parade” was the next day and would be led by the freshly crowned king and queen and include the state floats and more polished entertainment. The photos below may or may not be from the first parade, but gives a good idea of how things went down.
It seems that there was a bit of a kerfuffle regarding one of the parade floats, and in fact it was with the winning float. You see, Mrs. Thorn, proprietor of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, had apparently put up the cash for the North Carolina float, which happened to win the award for best float. But the award, consisting of a silver cup and $50 went to the North Carolina Society. Uh oh. Mrs. Thorn was more than a bit displeased that she had had not been personally awarded the prizes, and as things go decided to file a lawsuit over it. But all’s well that ends well, and after Mrs. Thorn cooled down she withdrew her lawsuit. Not before embarrassing herself publicly, however.
And That Concludes Things for Part I
So that was the story behind the beginning of the Festival of States. It started a decades-long celebration that many in St. Pete still remember. In fact, the celebration then parade made it until 2014, nearly 100 years after the first was so well executed.
There are many more stories of the Festival of States and I encourage you to keep an eye out for the next part of this multi-part series to explore the glory days and eventual demise of the Festival of States in St. Pete.
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