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The Fair Grounds' marvels of yesteryear: Bayou St. John

If you plan to hit up Jazz Fest this weekend, you may be interested to learn about a few noteworthy events that have taken place at the Fair Grounds since its birth in 1852. Aside from horse races, the Fair Grounds has played host to a number of other...let's say, less expected occasions over the years.

Take, for example, the circus that rolled onto the Fair Grounds infield in 1906. An ad in the Times-Picayune read: “Barnum and Bailey, Greatest Show on Earth! A Circus That Is a Circus! A University of Marvels! Glorious Peace Spectacle! Furore-Creating Auto Somersault! Sensational Bicycle Twirls!”  An article describing the circus mentions “hundreds of sleek, well-groomed horses,” “rare and curious animals,” elephants, and a “mammoth hippodrome pavilion.” [1]

Or take the mysterious “fairy garden” constructed to house the February 1911 automobile and motor-boat show in the Fair Grounds grand stand. What this magical, leafy world was intended to convey is any modern reader’s best guess, but it sounds pretty exciting--seeing as it was to boast “the most elaborate” floral decorations “ever attempted in New Orleans”:

“During the coming week the Fair Grounds grand stand building…will be transformed into a fairy garden…. U. J. Virgin has the contract to furnish the potted plants, boxwood trees and the various floral decorations which are to be the most elaborate ever attempted in New Orleans.…Hundreds of plants will be used, while thousands upon thousands of yards of wild smilax [a type of vine] will be placed to lend attractiveness.…More than 3,500 electric lights will be added.…These will be festooned in an artistic way, with the wires covered with wild smilax. Everything will be done to make the electrical display of the most brilliant order.”  [2]

In May 1901, a public wedding was held at the Fair Grounds. The name of the bride and groom were withheld up until the day of the event because “a guessing match as to the first name of the bride and her age and nationality” was to go on beforehand. The wedding participants got dressed at the St. Charles Hotel, and as soon as everyone was ready, seven automobiles “whizzed up to the ladies’ entrance” and the procession made its way to the Fair Grounds, each car “decorated with flowers and colored electric lights.” There was no mention of the results of the guessing game, however... [3]

Lastly, we hear of an automobile race at the Fair Grounds in 1921. The feature event was a “50-mile match race between Bill Wade’s Studebaker, Ray Bardin’s Lexington and George Weiblen’s Stutz.” The program also included events like: “Three-mile Ford races,” “Truck tug of war,” and “High-gear slow-speed race for fully-equipped stock cars.” Twenty policemen were on hand to “keep the crowd under control.” [4]

When you’re standing in your own crowd, listening to the gospel, jazz, bluegrass, or rock music, this weekend, perhaps you’ll think of some of the strange things that have taken place below your feet over the past century and a half. I know I will!

 

 

 

  1. "Circus Comes To-Day, And For Two Days Fair Grounds Will Revel In the Sounds and." Times-Picayune 6 Oct. 1906: 5. NewsBank. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
    Times-Picayune 6 Oct. 1906: 9. NewsBank. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
  2. "Fair Grounds Fairy Garden To House Automobile Show." Times-Picayune 12 Feb. 1911: 8. NewsBank. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
  3. "A Fair Wedding. An Automobile Parade to Precede the Ceremony, And the Presents to the." Times-Picayune 17 May 1901: 9. NewsBank. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
  4. "Studebaker, Lexington and Stutz Race Today in Fair Grounds Feature." Times-Picayune 2 Oct. 1921: 71. NewsBank. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Cassie Pruyn is a New Orleans based poet who is currently working on a narrative history of Bayou St. John in New Orleans. You can see her posts and poetry on her website.