Mardi Gras is Back

Apalachicola welcomes its Mardi Gras celebration after a 60-year moratorium with great style and panacheMardi Gras is Back in ApalachicolaOrganizers hope the new festival will help the homeless – and the local economy as well

By Jason Dehart

At the dawn of the 20th century, Apalachicola celebrated Mardi Gras in much the same way as its bigger Gulf Coast brethren New Orleans and Mobile, Ala. There were brass bands, costumed characters and bombastic, boisterous parades.

Interest in the festival waned over the years, and World War II put a complete stop to the fun. For 60 years, there were no Mardi Gras festivals in Apalachicola – until today. Thanks to the Franklin County Chapter of Habitat for Humanity and one family’s spirited interest in local history, Mardi Gras is making a comeback in this Forgotten Coast destination.

The new festival started in 2003 as a Habitat for Humanity fundraising event, according to Don Ashley, an international wildlife consultant who has served on numerous advisory committees, including the Franklin County Economic Development Committee, Apalachicola River Keepers, Big Bend Scenic Byway Committee and others. His wife, Pamela, serves as the Franklin County representative for the Housing Authority of Northwest Florida.

“Starting in 2003, we hosted this fundraiser at the Dixie Theatre,” Don Ashley said. “It was successful enough that the first four years we raised over $70,000 for Habitat, which has built two homes; a third is in site selection.”

This past February, the Apalachicola Mardi Gras Revue featured a street festival, a jazz band at the Owl Café and piano playing at the Oasis Bar. The corner of Commerce and D streets was decorated  with banners and garlands. It was a fun two-day event.

“The local merchants association saw how successful we were, and they will likely get behind this next year,” Ashley said.

Ashley said the story behind Apalachicola’s original Mardi Gras has been all but forgotten over time, replaced by other festivals as the town’s economic focus shifted from being a cotton shipping port to seafood and fishing. World War II didn’t help matters either, as the U.S. Army occupied the region to train soldiers for the invasion of Europe.

“I suppose all those things played some role or factor in the celebration not being maintained,” Ashley said. “And of course, there is the possibility – and I’m just speculating – that as the seafood industry gained prominence in Franklin County, the Apalachicola Seafood Festival began to take more of a central role in the community.”

But Ashley is hoping that the new festival sparks a new wave of economic prosperity in the area.

“When I sat on the Economic Development Committee for Franklin County – which was composed of the two chambers of commerce from Apalachicola and Carrabelle – we basically pitched the idea that if we could become a two-day event, then perhaps in addition to becoming a successful theme for Habitat for Humanity, it could become an economic event for the county during the off-season when restaurants and the rental units struggle to continue the economy of Franklin County,” he said.

Meanwhile, making the new event a success depends on arranging to have it on a specific date each year and not using a “floating” date, Ashley said.

“We’re moving the event to the first weekend in February,” he said. “We feel like, and the input from many in the community is, that if you’re going to try and establish and event, it needs to be predictable to people of when that will happen. There’s a lot of variation in the actual date of Mardi Gras, but we don’t think the actual day is as important as just engaging the community in a celebration that reestablishes something that was important in the community prior to this. The economic event for Franklin County may be just as important or equally important as raising money for Habitat for Humanity.

Categories: Forgotten Coast 2007, Forgotten Coast Archive