For local historian Dr. Ann Pond, Mobile’s annual pre-Lenten shindig is for more than good times. It’s a chance to take in centuries of the city’s tale.
Pond is shifting that journey from chronological to geographical. Come November, residents and tourists alike will be able to wander downtown on the Mobile Mardi Gras Trail and learn how this celebration came to be.
“We want to identify spots that are important to the founders of local activities, like the Cowbellions, and go to their homes, ball locations or things like that. We’ve identified sites and we’re going to start out along Royal Street and the river,” Pond said.
Not unlike Mobile’s Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail, this new pastime can burn calories while feeding your head. It will also hopefully clarify a past that has become obfuscated by urban mythology over the last century.
“I want people to appreciate the history of Mardi Gras and not just think of it as the moonpie and party thing but think about the theatrical background, the artistic background. You know, where the secrecy came from and the Masonic connection, the real historic elements people can appreciate,” Pond said.
Pond’s dissertation was fashioned from extensive research into American Carnival celebrations and history. She transitioned it into perhaps the most intricately footnoted and attributed trio of books on Gulf Coast winter holidays and Joe Cain ever published.
“There’s five spots to start with. One on the river close to GulfQuest, on the river by the convention center, two on Royal Street and one on Bienville Square,” Pond said.
Her hope is to follow up with more the following year — in Oakleigh, by the Carnival Museum, the Vincent House on Spring Hill Avenue, perhaps at Cotton Hall or the Cain family traditional home near Spring Hill and Broad.
“Others will be rolled out over time but we’ll just have to see how money goes,” Pond said.
A kickoff event is planned for Nov. 2 at a plaque site directly between Cooper Riverside Park and Arthur Outlaw Convention Center. Pond is awhirl in tasks, developing a website, talking to the history museum, the tourism denizens and the mayor’s office.
“One option will be regular walking tours every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Also at the visitors’ center, the Mardi Gras Park and hotels, and they can use little brochures for a self-guided tour, but we’ll have these guided tours three times a week that start at the river,” Pond said.
After she has the website at mobilemardigrastrail.com up and running, she hopes to develop a smartphone app for easier access while on foot. It should be revelatory for everyone who peruses it.
“There’s going to be a huge amount of background. Really interesting things, like how Mobile was perceived nationally at the time and how well it was known for its New Year’s parades and then, eventually, its Mardi Gras,” Pond said.
Plaque installation is targeted for February before 2017 Carnival season begins. Also on her checklist is the completion of a board of directors since incorporation has already been filed.
“Right now it’s still under the Historic Preservation Society but it will be its own thing, its own entity even while we apply for the 501(c)(3) status,” Pond said.
The nonprofit status will prove key in providing funding. Another plan to raise money has been with the sale of dedicated brick pavers.
“So on the website, in addition to the trail itself marked out on the map, there will also be a way to help support the development of it by buying a brick. Three lines of inscription will be available on each brick,” Pond said.
The pavers are planned to surround each plaque. The more bricks sold, the more plaques can be installed.
To this columnist, this project sounds ideal. Mobilians revere the past and Mardi Gras both.
If all the members of all the contemporary mystic orders and societies bought brick pavers, the trail would grow like kudzu. That goes for parading and non-parading groups alike.
There’s an intricate tale about Gulf Coast winter celebrations but also a lot of myth. The better we learn the verified and documented truth behind it all, the more we can appreciate its richness.