The Mardi Gras season which had its start Twelfth Night at the Old Courthouse with an afternoon ball and a music parade in Soulard ending with fireworks, culminates Tuesday night in St. Louis, as elsewhere in the world, with the last of the parades. In a tradition stretching back to the Middle Ages, Mardi Gras, still known in most of the world as Carnival, is celebrated with festive foods and libations, parades, masquerades and street parties.
Although the earliest Mardi Gras celebrations in the U.S. date to 1703 in Mobile, Alabama (first capitol of Louisiane), the biggest and most famous take place in New Orleans emanating from Le Vieux Carre (The Old Square) in the French (and oldest) Quarter of the city. Like Carnival celebrations in Venice, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro the Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans became very elaborate over time.
Far beyond the simple, circus-like atmosphere of the medieval European Carnivals, tremendous artistry and months of labor can go into the creation of Mardi Gras floats, costumes and masks. Now music, dance and performances of all kinds fill the days and nights leading up to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, the Christian season of sacrifice. After the long nights and chill of winter, when the first stirrings of Spring are in the air, millions throughout the world briefly throw caution to the wind and dance in the streets.
From the beginning, there have been strong ties between New Orleans and Saint Louis, since the firm of Maxent, Laclede and Company of New Orleans established the fur trading center of their import/export business here, in the mid-Mississippi River Valley. Beyond the fur trade, the Illinois Country was providing New Orleans with the necessary commodity of wheat for flour* and the luxury of apples. Pierre Laclede and Marie Chouteau would have brought both French Carnival and Creole Mardi Gras customs to the colonial village when they settled here in 1764.
The Soulard Neighborhood is St. Louis’ “French Quarter,” hosting this year its 32nd Annual Mardi Gras celebration. Once home to many descendants of the first French and Creole families of St. Louis, it became a melting pot of nationalities, still often referred to as “Frenchtown”.
It’s little wonder with street names like Chouteau, Gratiot and Cerre, galleried houses, Mansard roofs with dormers, shuttered windows and French doors not to mention courtyard gardens with fountains and wrought iron balconies. As I walked through Soulard Market among the revelers Saturday almost none of the shops were open and no produce was being sold in the longest, consistently maintained public market in the nation. With rare exceptions it was wall-to-wall college kids with drinks in their hands. The architecture of Soulard makes it a wonderfully atmospheric setting for Mardi Gras.
But residents’ concerns about safety and destruction of property are understandable when you consider the repercussions of two-to-two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand people descending upon your neighborhood to party in the streets all day long and into the night. 2011 proved a light year because it was cold, windy and dark with clouds. Imagine the impact on residential streets when the number is twice that! The neighborhoods’ many club owners and restaurateurs are delighted with crowds that size but those who have lifetime investments in their homes are less so.
She doesn’t open on Mardi Gras but Sally Moehle holds court at La Belle Histoire the rest of the year, in her unequivocally French Quarter, gypsy boutique. Sally trades in beautiful silks and scarves, jewelry, candles, lanterns and other exotic home decor, greeting cards and magical gifts. If you want a one-of-a kind, hand-made mask for the Mayor’s Mardi Gras Ball in the Rotunda of City Hall, a private masquerade party or simply to parade around in the streets you will find it here at La Belle Histoire, 2501 South Twelfth Street. But you have to do your shopping well ahead of the week-end before Fat Tuesday.
Across the Mississippi River in Cahokia, Illinois Mardi Gras was being celebrated in other ways, with the doors of four remarkable French Colonial landmarks thrown wide to to visitors: Cahokia Courthouse (circa 1740), Holy Family Log Church (1799), the Martin-Boismenue House (circa 1790) and the Jarrot Mansion (1810). My husband and I had the pleasure of visiting three of these after the Mardi Gras parade Saturday in Soulard.
When we entered Holy Family Log Church archaeologist, Robert Mazrim of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was narrating a slide show of artifacts: ceramics, kitchen utensils, bottles, jewelry excavated in the immediate area. The predecessor of the present vertical log church and the present Cahokia Courthouse were standing when Pierre Laclede Liguest came to Cahokia and invited its residents to become a part of Saint Louis.
He suggested that their businesses would prosper right alongside the great natural highway that was the Mississippi River. He may also have suggested that they would be safer from the river’s floods on the bluffs high above it than they would be here. Several families accepted the invitation, removed the glass windows from their homes, crossed the river and built new houses to hold them.
The atmosphere of antiquity and serenity within the humble yet beautiful, poteaux-sur-solle, L’Eglise de Sainte Famille, is indescribable. It is close enough in design, specifications and materials to be the mother church of Saint Louis, the gathering place for people of many social classes and nationalities – French, Creole, Canadian, tribal American, Spanish, African and West Indian.
But it is in fact the third Church of the Holy Family to stand on this site, the first dating to 1699! The great Norman truss supporting the roof and the finely hewn, walnut posts of the walls reflect the most prevalent architectural style of the French in the Mississippi River Valley (having made its way from Normandy, France) and illustrate pride of craftsmanship and great devotion. Parishioner Bill Day kindly gave us a brief tour and we will return again to listen to his stories for his knowledge of the church, the community and the history of the wider area is deep, rich and colorful.
Our next stop was the handsome, Federal-style mansion of French entrepreneur, Nicholas Jarrot, who owned thousands of acres of land in this area. I love the corner chimneys built at right angles on the main floor! And the parlor door in the chamber to the right as you enter the mansion – one half of which has been restored to the way it looked in Jarrot’s time and the other revealing the archaeological excavation of its surface. Archivist and historian, Andrew Cooperman, pointed out some of the building’s most important features to us. William Clark built a Colonial mansion quite like this after he was made governor of the Missouri Territory.** It’s likely he visited and admired Jarrot’s mansion before beginning his own in St. Louis.
We drove over to Cahokia Courthouse and once more entered eagerly into the 18th century, the earliest architectural remnant of European settlement in the state of Illinois and the oldest French Colonial building in the St. Louis area. Twenty minutes from the Gateway Arch! Originally a residence, this handsome vertical, post-on-sill house is as durable as it is charming. A fire was lit in the hearth to welcome visitors to a house perfectly designed for the relaxed hospitality of the French in the Illinois Country.
Historical re-enactors filled the rooms in 18th century garb transporting us over two-and-a-half centuries. There are beautiful exhibits just waiting for student groups to come and visit so they can be brought to life. Preservationists have restored and maintained this building magnificently. The Open Houses in Historic Cahokia, IL on Saturday, March 5th initiated Une Fete du Vieux Grand Temps, a Celebration of the Good Old Days which ended that night with a Colonial Mardi Gras Ball.
We heard the re-enactors discussing the fact that these buildings may soon close because of economic constraints. What a tragedy this would be! Every student for miles around this area of Missouri and Illinois should have the opportunity to visit these priceless historic landmarks and to experience 18th century American history in such rich settings. I hope that private donors will take the initiative to maintain and keep them open until the State of Illinois is once again able to do so.
As Carnival revelers throughout much of the world pull out all the stops Tuesday night most St. Louisans and Cahokians will be celebrating Mardi Gras in simple ways – gathering for suppers and splurging a bit with the last of the treats until Easter. Wherever you are be safe and merry! As we put winter to bed and usher in the incipient joys of spring, “L’aissez les bon temps roulez! Let the good times roll!”
* Archaeologist, Robert Mazrim,** National Park Service Historian, Robert Moore, Jr.
Illustration: The Carnival at New Orleans – wood engraving by John Durkin, Harper’s Weekly, March 1885 – in the public domain at wikipedia.com. Photo Credits: Photos of La Belle Histoire Shop and Houses in Soulard – Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro – author Sergio Luiz, Feb. 2006 – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Photos of Holy Family Log Church, the Nicholas Jarrot Mansion and Cahokia Courthouse – courtesy of Thomas Kavanaugh; Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans 2009 – photo by infrogmation (talk) – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Russia Carnival, St. Petersburg 2007 – in the public domain at wikipedia.com.