Ask Hamilton – Chattanooga’s Spring Festival

Chattanooga debutante Mary Louise “Lucy” Bond. Photo taken during Spring Festival, 1902.

Dear Hamilton,

I was digging through boxes in my attic last weekend when a black-and-white photograph caught my eye. A young woman dressed in a white gown sat atop a parade float, and an inscription on the corner read, “Flower Parade on Market Street, circa 1898.”

Do you know what it could be from?   

Sincerely,
Stumped in St. Elmo

Dear Stumped,

That photo is most certainly from the Spring Festival, held in Chattanooga from 1898 through the mid- to late-1900s.

What was the Spring Festival, you ask?

It was three full days of romantic  Victorian pageantry in downtown Chattanooga, and it began during one of the most trying times for our city: the Spanish-American War.

The festival made its debut in May of 1898 at the exact same time an outbreak of typhoid was sweeping though Camp Thomas, then the nation’s largest military training ground located just 10 miles from downtown. A band of civic leaders believed the lighthearted distraction was just what the city needed to boost morale and lure visitors – which it most certainly did, drawing an estimated 75,000 in its first year (Chattanooga’s population was then 49,000).    

As a bit of background, May Day celebrations were already all the rage in 19th and early 20th century America. It was trendy for Victorians to draw loosely from the holiday’s pagan and medieval origins for their own celebrations. For Chattanooga, which was then a boomtown of iron and steel, a festival of flowers, lightness, and spring offered a stark contrast to the gritty realities of daily industry.

The chief event of our very own festival was the grand flower parade, in which horse-drawn carriages and floats – all fantastically decorated with floral displays – carried prominent citizens down Market Street before thousands of spectators. Each year, the surrounding areas and neighborhoods would choose a “Queen” from among their number to represent their community in the parade. Additionally, one woman would be selected to be the “Festival Queen” and one man would be selected to play “Baldur,” the King of Spring and symbol of the festival.

My best guess is that this photo you’ve unearthed may very well depict the “Queen” chosen to represent St. Elmo in the year 1898.

Hope this helps,

Hamilton Bush

Resident History Hound,

Chattanooga, Tennessee

 

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