CAROLA LILLIE HARTLEY
Photograph: The Breaux Bridge Brass Band that participated in the 1901 July 4th Opelousas parade and entertained at the day long event. Band members pictured l-r bottom row: Klebert Melancon, P. Lee Begnaud, Jean Durand, and Leonce Ransonet. Standing: Cypriene Melancon. (Courtesy of Kenneth Delcambre.)
It was only the second year of the new 20th century and Opelousas was flourishing like never before. The town was called one of the most progressive and most beautiful in Louisiana. More and more people wanted to visit to see this special place.
Town leaders saw an opportunity to showcase the community by organizing events and activities to attract visitors from other parts of the state. Entertainment events were held at various times during the year and on March 19, 1901, a grand St Joseph’s Day Parade was held. It was one of the best parades Opelousas ever had. After that successful parade, the town fathers wanted to hold additional positive events.
It had been several years since Opelousas celebrated the nations birthday in a big way. That was on July 4, 1889. On that day the town held a grand parade with all Opelousas fire companies participating led by the Opelousas Brass Band. The fire engines were all decorated, with the special giant engine giving a splendid exhibition by throwing water, showing what the local firemen could do when it was needed to fight a fire. There were eloquent speakers addressing the large crowd that poured into town for that day, noting the marvelous wealth and strength and further possibilities of the United States. There were games and special activities held on the courthouse square all day, with a musical concert given by Professor R. Mayer and his band. The day ended with a grand ball sponsored by the Opelousas Social Club at their hall, and a display of fireworks.
Immediately a committee was formed to plan many activities including a big parade and grand ball for July 4, 1901. On June 15, the Opelousas Courier announced the Opelousas Board of Trade had agreed to partner with the Hope Hook and Ladder Fire Company to sponsor the parade. At the next Board of Trade meeting, the group appointed L. Desmarais, Mason McBride and Jonas Roos to head the committee for the grand celebration. A. C. Skiles, J. G. Lawler and J. L. Cahanin were called upon to work with the fire department and other organizations to plan for the proper observance of the day; to request all merchants to close their businesses from 10am to 5pm and to asked the railroad authorities to give excursions from Lake Charles, Morgan City and Alexandria. They were also instructed to “advertise far and near that there will be a grand parade and monster patriotic demonstration in old Opelousas on that day.”
The ladies of the town were called upon to help with the festivities. A flower parade was planned as well as a patriotic public event where many area citizens would be called upon to speak. There would be fireworks followed by a grand ball to end the day.
Finally, the big day arrived. A huge banner advertising the Opelousas Board of Trade was put up across Landry Street. People began arriving early in the morning eagerly awaiting the start of the grand parade. There were booths selling pink lemonade, candy and other sweets as well as a variety of delicious foods. And there was music on the St. Landry Parish Courthouse Square.
Trains arrived at the depots carrying hundreds of out of towners to Opelousas for the big event. It was estimated the crowd numbered four to five thousand people on that day. Soon the parade started, and what a parade it was!
At 1 p. m., the parade formed at the High School campus on N. Market Street and proceeded
over the designated route, ending at the courthouse square. Following is the order of procession were: Grand Marshals-Sheriff M.L. Swords, H. D. Larcade, Mel Durio, Jack Comeau, Chas. F. Garland, Dr. Marshall Compton, Dr. F. J. Pulford, George Rogers, Russell Chachere and Thos. Atkinson. They were followed by “Uncle Sam”, represented by Willie Foster; the Breaux Bridge Brass Band; R.E. Lee Camp No. 14, U.C.V., and other mounted units; Little Marie Fire Co., with engine decorated, and their little sponsor Marie Meginley; Hope Hook & Ladder Co.; and Prof. Mayer’s Silver Cornet Band. Then came eleven decorated vehicles; the Colored Brass Band and several decorated carriages at the rear.
When the parade ended, the crowd gathered at the courthouse square where Mayor Littell introduced C. J. Thompson who read the Declaration of Independence. Afterwards the crowd was invited into the courthouse for the speaking event.
Thomas H, Lewis, introduced by Mayor Littell, acted as MC for this occasion. It was his job to introduce, with remarks, the speakers of the day. They included Justin Daspit of New Orleans, P. T. Ogden, John W. Lewis, Austin Fontenot, and Leo Mayer, all of the Opelousas area, and Professor Stephens of the recently opened State Industrial Institute at Lafayette. The audience paid close attention to all the speeches, and all were given an enthusiast round of applause as they ended.
Immediately following the speeches, the crowd joined the festival goers in downtown for amusement including races, a prize fight, greased pole climbing, greasy pig chase, and plenty of music. At eight o’clock, the festival gathering continued on the St. Landry High School campus at the corner of Bloch and N. Market streets, where the entertainment included the fireworks display and music performed by two bands.
The highlight of the fireworks was the name H. L. Garland, illuminated in the last presentation. When the fireworks concluded, most of the gathering went to the Sandoz Opera House on Main Street where Mr. G. E. Forester announced the winner for the most artistically decorated vehicle, and presented Mrs. Clements the prize, a beautiful vase. The evening ended with the firemen’s grand ball that was enjoyed by the young folks until the wee hours of the next morning.
What a great 4th of July that was for the old village. Opelousas was overwhelmed with positive responses about that festivity. For days afterwards, local and state newspapers reported on Opelousas and its success. It was obvious the community produced something special that would be long remembered. And it was. Over the following years, other such events were immediately compared to the success of that July 4, 1901 celebration. To the citizens of Opelousas who were lucky enough to experience that gala, it remained one of the most talked about events of the early 20th century.