Yet another victim of the Covid-19 Pandemic, the 74th annual Mardi Gras took place in a much abbreviated form this past Friday and Saturday in down town Winchester.
The annual event sponsored by the Winchester Community Cultural Preservation Committee had its origins as a pumpkin auction to benefit rheumatic fever in the 40’s. This soon became an annual event sponsored by the Jaycees. It regularly included a costume contest and parade. The first pumpkin auction was so successful that it gained the attention of a reporter and photographer from the Chicago Daily Times, and the community was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for community service. The pumpkin auctions ended in 1958.
Each year a “Pumpkin Queen” was selected. This evolved into the annual “Mardi Gras Queen” contest. Throughout the 1950’s this contest was a highlight of the festival as young ladies from all over the county vied for the title. This competition is still a part of the annual Mardi Gras. A “Mardi Gras King” is now also named.
The Winchester Community Cultural Preservation Committee was founded in 1996, after the Winchester Jaycees chapter folded after 49 years of service to the community. Steve Ward got the ball rolling when he learned that there would be no 50th Mardi Gras. He asked Mayor Jack Fowler for help with financing the final Mardi Gras. The Mayor challenged him to form a committee. This committee consisted of himself, Rod and Camille Webb, and Jim Nunez. Through a lot of hard work, the 50th Mardi Gras ensued. The turn out was OK, and many of the people helping out thought it was a great deal of fun. The Boy Scouts and many of the Churches that had booths made money. People then started to think that “maybe we can do this.” They contacted the lawyer for the Jaycees, Tom Cockerill, who guided them through the process of becoming a non-profit organization.
Typically lasting four days, this year, the festival was cut to two. It was determined that due to the viral outbreak, the parade could not be held, and that they would have no rides. The festival normally covers three sides of the square plus a little beyond it on Franklin, Meridian, and Main Streets. This year it covered only Franklin and Meridian Streets, with the food booths set up primarily on Meridian Street and vendors and local organizations having booths along Franklin Street. This year, the Bicentennial Plaza on the South side of the courthouse served as the main stage. Signs encouraging guests to wear masks and maintain social distancing were posted.
The festival opened at 5:00 PM Friday evening with a performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” by David Rees. The Monroe Central Elementary Choir, consisting of Fifth and Sixth Graders then sang a number of songs, many of them from movies produced by Disney and Pixar.
The Winchester Community High School Jazz Band under the direction of Joel Good took the “stage” at 6:00 PM and performed for about an hour closing with their rendition of Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” After the band had cleared their equipment, the candidates for Mardi Gras King and Queen were presented. A microphone was handed to each contestant as they announced their name, the school they planned on attending, and their post-high school area of study. It was then announced that the King and Queen at this year’s festival were Wade Sickels and Mabrey Haney. Although underfunded this year, the W.C.C.P.C. managed to provide a $ 500 scholarship for each.
Earlier in the evening, tickets had been passed out for a bike give away. A brand new boy’s and girl’s bike was then wheeled onto the plaza. The newly crowned King then drew the ticket for the boy’s bicycle and announced the winning number. The Queen then did the same for the girls’ bike. The festival remained open until around 9:00 PM.
On Saturday, at 11:00 AM, another warm beautiful fall day, the Mardi Gras re-opened. Always a highlight of the festival are the many food vendors. Some of the usual favorites were missing this year, the Moose Lodge with their “Moose-burgers” and the BPW’s booth selling delicious homemade cookies were two notable absentees. However, many favorites were still there. Former restaurant owner, Velia Mayfield of Velias Tacos, brought back her fair-goers favorite tacos. She had one of the longest lines of the food vendors on hand. Hoosier Cue Daddy Too added another favorite to the food menu. Specializing in pulled pork and brisket, the crew served up meals of baked potatoes, cheesy potatoes and sandwiches all filled with the tasty pork piled on top. Others present were the Winchester Pentecostal Church with their popular elephant ears; Homefire Pizza who’s oven can be frequently found in Losantville and Parker City, Indiana; Mike’s Family Concessions of Union City, Indiana, with his tasty sandwiches and snacks; the Winchester Masonic Lodge no. 56 with their sloppy joes and “Mason” Dogs; as well as a few other food vendors.
Door Prizes donated by many local businesses were handed out beginning at 4:30 PM. Wayne County’s The Backdraft Band performed on the plaza beginning at 5:00 PM. The band consisting of Jack Collins: Lead Guitar, vocals; Ed Hobson: Rhythm Guitar, vocals; Michael Ripberger: Drums; Susan Gentry: Lead Vocals; and Jeff Gentry: Bass guitar played a variety of country and classic rock hits entertaining fair-goers until the close of the festival at 7:00 PM.
Although the unusual events of this very strange year demanded a reduced “Mini” Gras, the W.C.C.P.C. had wonderful weather for the event. Both days were sunny with temperatures nearly reaching 80 degrees. I recall some years with very cold temperatures and even a few with snow for the annual event. As the festival closed it was announced that, if all goes well, next year’s 75th annual Mardi Gras will be “bigger than ever!”