New Orleans vs. Mobile: who started Mardi Gras?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 1, 2005

New Orleans lays claim to the first Mardi Gras on these shores. Mobile, however, bills itself as &uot;The Mother of All Mardi Gras&uot; and claims the earliest celebrations took place

(in what would become sweet home Alabama) in the early 1700s.

Mobile may not be the biggest or best-known American Mardi Gras celebration – but it just may have the strongest case for being the oldest.

A group of French colonists set up camp in 1699 near present-day New Orleans and called the spot Point de Mardi Gras, in honor of the carnival so beloved in their native country. But did these gentlemen actually celebrate the holiday that year, or in the years shortly thereafter? The history books are a bit hazy on the subject.

What is agreed upon is the fact Mobile was holding annual Mardi Gras celebrations as early as 1703. That first carnival observance was held at 27 Mile Bluff, a simple affair with a fine meal, wine and a chance to fellowship with friends and family. Annual celebrations continued, but it wasn’t until the 19th century the event really took off in Mobile – thanks to a one-eyed Pennsylvania Dutch transplant named Michael Krafft.

In 1830, following a celebratory lunch downtown, Krafft and his tipsy buddies &uot;borrowed&uot; some implements from the sidewalk display of a local hardware store. The group proceeded, with rakes, hoes and cowbells, to parade through the streets of the town. Thus was born the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, and a Mobile tradition was underway. Krafft’s was the first mystic society to go on parade – and Mobile had mystic societies some 20 years before New Orleans.

Transplanted Mobilians even took some of their Mardi Gras traditions to New Orleans in the 19th century – a debt ‘The Big Easy’ does not always acknowledge.

The Civil War brought a halt to many of Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebrations, including the Krafft parade.

In 1866, when the city was still under occupation by Union forces, another group of gentlemen, led by Joseph Cain, decided to revive the tradition.

Once again, they did some &uot;borrowing&uot; – this time, a coal wagon – and decked themselves out in improvised costumes based on a legendary Chickasaw Indian chief. The group paraded through the streets of Mobile on Shrove Tuesday – Mardi Gras – and started an uninterrupted string of Mobile Mardi Gras parades.

Today, the Port City prides itself on having the most family-friendly Mardi Gras celebration. The Conde Cavalier Parade rolled last Friday night, and many more parades will get underway starting this Thursday night, right through Mardi Gras Day on Tuesday, February 8. Laissez Les bon temps rouler!