- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - On March 9, 1886, Birmingham residents were greeted with a report in The Birmingham Age newspaper declaring the city’s first Mardi Gras a success. A headline said: “German Mardi Gras: King Carnival Captures the City and the Scene is Witnessed by a Large Crowd.”

It was the first time the city held a Mardi Gras celebration, complete with parades and masked balls, which had been a tradition in the port city of Mobile since 1703, with a break for the Civil War. The 1886 Birmingham event was sponsored by the local German Society.

The Birmingham Age article said: “Yesterday the morning trains brought large crowds to the city, and by noon the streets were thronged with residents and visitors.” The article went on to give descriptions of floats and of the attire of the carnival king, L.L. Schwartz. Schwartz was the owner of the New Orleans Clothing House and wore a royal purple costume and jeweled crown.

Birmingham, a city founded just 15 years earlier, had quickly become the industrial hub of Alabama and counted among its residents many newly wealthy families. It seemed the perfect site for the quirky but ritualistic celebrations that come with Mardi Gras.

Despite the success of that first event, the Magic City did not host its next Mardi Gras for another decade, according to historian James L. Baggett, who wrote an article on the history for Birmingham Magazine. Perhaps the reason for the inexplicable delay was as simple as the need for an organization to host it.

In 1896, a host appeared in the form of Emil Lasser, owner of Birmingham’s Cosmopolitan Hotel. Lasser and some friends and associates founded the Birmingham Carnival Society to organize a new Mardi Gras in an effort to increase tourism.

The society determined that the person chosen as festival king each year would be known as Rex Vulcan for the duration of the celebration. A queen would also be chosen. Events included the parade and several masked balls.

But Baggett said weather didn’t cooperate in central Alabama. It was so cold in 1896, the royal court wore coats over their costumes for the parade. Still, 30,000 to 40,000 people came out to watch.

In 1899, a massive blizzard struck the South three days before the parade, leaving a foot of snow on downtown streets.

“On Fat Tuesday, thermometers registered nine degrees below zero and the carnival was cancelled,” Baggett said of the 1899 event.

A parade was held in 1900, this one a night, but the enthusiasm had waned. Baggett wrote: “One Birmingham resident of the time observed, ‘Every February when the Mardi Gras was held, the weather seemed to behave its very worst, and it was really for that reason the carnival committee called it off.’”

According to Bham Wiki, royalty of Birmingham’s Mardi Gras celebrations were:

-1886: King L.L. Schwartz, Queen Ada Solomon

-1896: Rex Vulcan I was Erwin Schillinger, Queen May Clare Key Milner (possibly Mary Claire Milner?)

-1897: Rex Vulcan II B.M. Allen, Queen Momie Terrell

-1898: Rex Vulcan III M.A. “Bert” Porter, Queen Susie Martin

-1899: Rex Vulcan IV Henry Milner, Queen Mary Claire Milner

-1900: Rex Vulcan V Ed Wilcox, Queen Elizabeth Shelly

-1901: Balls only; no parade

In recent years, some Birmingham residents have made efforts to revive a parade. Several events are held in the city, mainly for charitable groups. For instance, the Mystic Krewe of Apollo hosts a masked ball each year at Boutwell Auditorium, the Beaux Arts Krewe holds a debutante ball as a fundraiser for the Birmingham Museum of Art, Crestwood North holds a neighborhood parade, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute hosts an annual Mardi Gras fundraiser, according to Bham Wiki.

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