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Early Carnival Sparked Decorations, Parade

By Charles Cooper

Hello everyone, I hope you are having a good week.  As I usually do every year, I thought it appropriate to recount the origin of the Watermelon Carnival.

It all began in 1930 in the middle of the depression.  Water Valley had lost the railroad shops, a bank had failed and the farmers were getting eight cents a pound for cotton.  

The Chamber of Commerce, spearheaded by Edwin Blackmur, decided to do something to lift people’s spirits. They had heard of the Peach festival in Forrest City, Ark. and sent a delegation to learn what was needed to launch such a project.  

While attending the festival they hired  Bright and Newhouse, a Memphis decorating firm to decorate the store fronts and build floats.  Since watermelons were becoming a major  crop in the area, it was decided to call it the Watermelon Carnival.  

The merchants cooperated by helping in the decorating of their stores.  Shine Tyson, who owned the Grand Theater, was an artist.  He designed his own float and gave advice to others in building theirs. A contest was held to elect a Watermelon Queen and Eleanor Houston was selected.  It was decided that the queen would ride in the parade and go to the gym for the crowning and the coronation ball.

Buck Suratt was in charge of obtaining an orchestra  from Memphis and the proceeds from the dance were used to pay expenses.  There were over 30 local businessmen who assisted in that first carnival and as far as I have been able to learn, Bill Trusty is the only one still alive.  

Other towns such as Grenada, Oxford, Charleston and Bruce sent floats and participated in the parade. High school bands from the area played and marched in the parade.  

The railroad donated red and green flares and young boys would walk on each side of the parade holding them. Some enterprising citizens set up stands on the street to sell cold drinks and sandwiches to the hungry crowds.  

Claude and John Eddie Hale set up a huge barbeque in Claude’s back yard. Sam Addington would have a snow ball stand in front of his store.  The parade started at the park and ended in front of the gym.

I didn’t attend the first carnivals but got to attend the ones in the late 1930s.  We always tried to get a seat on the top step of the Post Office, which gave us a great view.  Of course I was too young to attend the balls and I’ve always hated that I missed them.

I mentioned that Eleanor  Houston was the first Queen and I thought I’d list the following ones in the order they reigned:  Rachel Tarver, Mary Eleanor Harris, Kathryn McCormick, Dorothy Brown, Hazel Graham, Mary Frances Coker, Elizabeth Caulfield, Kathleen Hague and Gladys Howard.  

I realize that most of these ‘names won’t mean anything to most of you, but Dorothy Brown was the daughter of Doctor George Brown; Elizabeth Caulfield was the aunt of Barron Caulfield II; and Kathleen Hague’s mother and my mother were best friends. Since they were a vital part of the carnivals, I thought a little recognition was in order.  

The same can be said for the Jaycees who helped it get started and continued over the years.  They were: Dick Mann, E.L. McVey, Dr. C.C. Stacy, Errol Spivey, Lonnie Harville, J.D. Quinn, Buck Suratt, Leslie Lee, A.B. Chadwick, Jelly Ross, Mr. Crosby, Afton Smith, Earl Sissell, Jimmy Bennett, Earl Fly, Elmer Gabbert, Wesson Moorehead, Shad Entriken, Kermit Cofer, E.E. Dunlap Edwin Blackmur, Happy Thompson, Will Morris Hardy, Bill Trusty, and Shine  Tyson.

On state election years politicians flocked to the carnival, much like they do today at the Neshoba County Fair.  I’ve mentioned in a recent column that I first heard Paul Johnson, Jr. speak for his father who was running for Governor and won.

The Carnival lasted ten years, from 1931 to 1941 when it was discontinued due to the rumblings of World War II.  It started again in 1981, but that’s another story.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip back to that humble beginning 79 years ago.  My plans are to attend the Carnival this year and I’m looking forward to seeing many of you there.  

Your input is always welcome and my email address is still or write me at P.O. Box 613189 Memphis, Tenn. 38101 and have a great time at this year’s Carnival.

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