The Funnel Cake Effect
A Look Back at Festivals From Baltimore’s Past
To fight the festival malaise, we decided to get in our Way Back Machine and find out what the local festivals of yesteryear were like. What we found was that festivals haven’t changed that much—art, music, food, and booze are hardly new inventions. But there were also a few sights we wished we could have been there to see, like Ethel Ennis singing at the first Baltimore City Fair, or porpoises swimming in the Jones Falls at the 1752 Agricultural Fair. Beat that, Artscape.
John Howard’s Agricultural Fair, 1752The earliest fair we could find was held in John E. Howard’s residence on Greene Street. Not much information on Howard is available, besides that he also conducted horse-racing on his property and was a fox-hunt fan. But his agricultural fair certainly left its mark on Baltimore. For the event a market was built on the southeastern corner of Baltimore and Gay streets, “and for the next hundred years, many town residents would refer to Baltimore St. as Market St.,” according to an excerpt from Don Cardoza’s unpublished book In Calvert’s Paradise: The Origins and Early Development of BaltimoreTown. The people of Baltimore Town, a thriving metropolis of 200 residents (including slaves), 25 houses, one church, and two taverns, were treated to plays and “entertained by a large number of porpoises swimming in the Jones Falls.” Cool.
Ladies State Sanitary Fair, 1864Sure, it sounds like a maxi-pad parade, but the Ladies State Sanitary Fair was more of a USO event. The U.S. Sanitary Commission was a voluntary organization that formed during the Civil War, “to aid in the care of soldiers in the Union army,” according to the Ladies State Sanitary Fair Registry from 1864. Held at the Maryland Institute near present-day Baltimore Street and Market Place, the Sanitary Fair “included exhibits, farm products, manufactures from the machine shop, art objects, and works by skilled artisans” and helped the commission raise $15 million for Union soldiers by the war’s end. And the festival wasn’t without celebrity guests: Honest Abe himself came out to get sanitary with his wife, Mary Todd.
March to Celebrate Maryland’s Ratification of the Constitution, 1788In May of 1788 Baltimoreans filed into the streets for an impromptu multiblock party/parade. According to Federal Hill Online, Revolutionary War hero Commodore Joshua Barney organized the revelers to celebrate Maryland’s decision to give its seal of approval to the U.S. Constitution. Highlights included a 15-foot fully rigged model of a sailing ship named the Federalist being pushed through the streets by a contingent of sailors. After parading through the streets the partygoers placed the ship atop John Smith’s Hill, and embarked on a daylong feast on 500 pounds of ham, 1,000 pounds of beef, 151.5 barrels of beer, 240 gallons of hard cider, and 9.5 gallons of peach brandy, according to the web site. With all that beer and brandy in their systems, Barney and the other drunken sailors decided to say bon voyage at midnight and slid the model ship down the hill into the harbor, sailing it all the way to Annapolis. And because seeing a boat belly-flopping down a huge hill was memory not soon forgotten, the city renamed the unintentional launch pad Federal Hill.
Summer Night’s Carnival of the Order of the Orioles, 1881 to 1883If you had attended the third and final Summer Night’s Carnival of the Order of the Orioles, you might have caught a glimpse of a 3-year-old H.L. Mencken toddling around. The Bard of Baltimore credits the carnival as one of his first memories and opens his autobiography Happy Days with a description of the fireworks display. He recalls “blinking at a great burst of lights, some of them red and others green, but most of them only bright yellow and flaring gas,” while sitting outside of his father’s cigar factory on West Baltimore Street. This precursor to the Oriole Festival depicted the story of Atlantis in floats drawn by gaily dressed horses and a tableau featuring hundreds of costumed participants. The carnival was cited in an October 1934 article in the American as being one of the most successful events ever staged in Baltimore, attracting thousands of visitors and virtually suspending business during its three-day tour. And no wonder. Would you be going shopping or to work if 300 floats were swimming down your street and 40 decorated tugboats were looping the harbor?
The Fair of the Iron Horse, 1927The purpose of the Fair of the Iron Horse was to show the evolution of the locomotive, according to the Baltimore County Public Library’s history web site. It took place in Halethorpe from Sept. 27 to Oct. 26 of 1927 to celebrate the centennial of Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. According to materials on the B&O Railroad Museum web site, “this historical pageant, exhibition and trade show. . . attracted over 1.25 million visitors in 3 weeks.” Wow, that’s a lot of people—and a lot of good hot dogs, beer, and crab cakes. It was supposed to become an annual event, but the Iron Horse was put to pasture by the Great Depression, a hurricane, and the coming of World War II. And just when it was set for a comeback in 2003, for the B&O’s 175th anniversary, the collapse of the B&O Railroad Museum’s roof due to a huge snowfall made it clear that a revived Fair of the Iron Horse wasn’t meant to be for now.
Cadillac Parade, 1946 to 1972And then there were parades that became so huge, they were like mini-festivals in themselves. Take the Cadillac Parade on Pennsylvania Avenue that used to take place the day before Father’s Day every June. The great stars of the day—Billie Holiday, Pearl Bailey, and whoever was performing in the Avenue’s many nightclubs—would don their finest gear and prop themselves up on a Caddy so sparkly it looked spit-shined. After 25 years without the wagon train of fancy cars and their waving occupants, the Cadillac Parade was reborn in the late ’90s. Much like Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s not as swanky as it used to be—fewer famous people, more marching bands—but it’s a welcome reminder of the neighborhood’s more festive past.
Baltimore City Fair, 1970 to 1991The Baltimore City Fair was founded in 1970 by local booster Hope Quackenbush to celebrate the city’s neighborhoods and people—and to prove that, despite riots and city residents fleeing to the county, Baltimore wasn’t the festering cesspool people thought it was. Local diva Ethel Ennis headlined the first year. Over the years it grew into an annual event involving most city agencies, 10,000 volunteers, and more than 1.5 million visitors over three days in 1975, according to a September 1976 article in Baltimore magazine. Sadly, the City Fair ended in 1991, “a victim of neglect by the city administration, financial problems, and constantly changing scenery,” wrote historian Fred B. Shoken in a Sun editorial in May of 2000.
AFRAM, 1970 to 2000In the 1970s, at the height of the age of ethnic festivals, AFRAM, the Afro American Festival, was born on Rash Field. At its start AFRAM was the “biggest black festival in Maryland,” according to a June 2001 Sun article, though rivals emerged in Anne Arundel County’s Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival and the Baltimore County African American Cultural Festival. But the festival’s 25-year sojourn was full of ups and downs: The location kept shifting, and in its final year attendance had dwindled to 15,000 from a peak of 110,000. So after 2000, AFRAM’s dashikis, x medallions, exhibits on all things Africana, and culinary delights, ranging from soul food to Caribbean, disappeared briefly, to be replaced by the African American Heritage Festival in 2002.
New Theatre Festival, 1978For a week in June the Mount Vernon/Mount Royal neighborhoods were a backdrop for performance artists from all over the world. The New Theatre Festival included plays like Bertold Brecht’s “The Jewish Wife”; a solo performance by classically trained New York musician Krakow Noa Ain of what she called her “inner operas”; and seminars on “visual theater” and “new performance issues for old spaces.” We’re sure it was all very avant-garde at the time, but in this, the home of the Once.Twice Festival, Transmodern Age, and, well, everything that goes on at the American Visionary Arts Museum, it sounds downright tame.
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