Story by Robin Fitzhugh and photos by Kate Reali and Stephen Savage
The celebration of Mardi Gras has ancient roots but in the modern world was widely celebrated in France before there were European settlements in North America. When the French government sent Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne,Sieur de Bienville to begin a colony at 27 Mile Bluff on the Alabama River in 1702, 14 years before the founding of New Orleans, Bienville was responsible for bringing the French carnival tradition with him to the New World. When the permanent settlement of Mobile was moved to its current location, the celebration of Mardi Gras continued and has been part of Mobile’s culture ever since.
It wasn’t until 1984 that two old friends, Daphne residents who were both members of Mardi Gras societies in Mobile, decided it was time the pre-Lenten celebration should take place in Baldwin County too. They called a few friends, who called more friends, and with the support of former Fairhope Mayor Jim Nix, 100 Knights of Ecor Rouge staged their first parade in 1985 in downtown Fairhope.
“We chose the name Ecor Rouge,” one of the founders says, “because it’s the name of the large bluff on the bay and because we didn’t want the organization to be tied to a particular city along the bay. We had an emblem float designed with the knight rising out of the bluff on a large black horse, a very powerful symbol and kind of mystical too.”
The first year the emblem float was the only newly built float and four others were borrowed from the Conde Cavaliers in Mobile. Now boasting more than 300 members, including 17 founding members who still ride each year, the KOER parade consists of 12 floats interspersed with high school marching bands from all across southern Alabama. “We started building our own floats about five years in,” an early organizer says, “and then we built our first float barn for year-round storage and membership meetings during the year.” Craig Stephens has been the float designer since the first KOER parade began, and he works every year designing new floats to carry out the themes that have included “A Knight at the Movies, “Knights to Remember,” and “A Night of Knights.” A ball at the Fairhope Civic Center follows the parade each year, where the revelry continues for members and their invited guests.
Fifteen years after KOER hit the streets of Fairhope, The Apollo’s Mystic Ladies was formed on the Eastern Shore. The Apollo’s Mystic Ladies, named for the mythological character who pursued the goddess Daphne, held their first ball at the Daphne Civic Center in 2001 and their first parade in downtown Daphne in 2002 on the Friday night before the KOER parade. With a mission statement to bring friendship and fellowship to their members and the true spirit of Mardi Gras revelry to Daphne, the 250-plus members of AML make it their goal to be generous with their throws to the crowds lining the streets and to keep their celebration family-friendly. An AML founder says “we start meeting in March as soon as the parade is over to plan for the next year, and it takes every member to make the parade and ball work. We are very team oriented,” she says, “and lasting friendships have grown up each year. We all get enjoyment out of seeing new members ride for the first time, and their excitement is contagious.”
Both organizations emphasize the economic engine that Mardi Gras is for the Eastern Shore business community. An AML member pointed out that “it’s not just the hotels and restaurants that benefit, but the gas stations, the convenience stores, the retail shops where ball gowns are purchased, decorators and caterers for the balls, and many more that are positively impacted each year.”
Mardi Gras has continued to expand in Baldwin County. In addition to the Maids of Jubilee and the Order of Mystic Magnolias in Fairhope and the Shadow Barons in Daphne, parades are also held in Foley, Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and along County Road 1 south of Point Clear. Members of each group will ensure that the good times will continue to roll for many years to come. Dates for all parades are available at mobilemask.com.
Mystic Mutts of Revelry
A highlight of the Mardi Gras season in Fairhope is the Mystic Mutts of Revelry pet parade, held on the same Saturday as the KOER parade. Sponsored by The Haven, a no-kill animal shelter, Mystic Mutts began in 2003 as a way to create awareness and raise funds for shelter, which had been founded by local veterinarian Dr. Teresa Marshall in 2000. The first year, 50 to 75 pets paraded through the streets of downtown, accompanied by their owners and led by the MMOR King and Queen. MMOR has grown each year, and more than 700 dogs were decked out last year in Mardi Gras regalia and cheered on by hundreds of revelers lining the streets for this afternoon event.