Today I did something I haven’t done in years: I went into Crowley for the first day of the International Rice Festival. Ever since we moved to Egan in January 1957, the Rice Festival has been part of my life. From 1957-1969, while I was in school, I was either in the festival or attending it — and usually both.
The festival was first held in October 1937 and named the National Rice Festival. During WWII, the festival was on hiatus. It was resumed in 1946 and renamed the International Rice Festival. It’s the oldest agricultural festival in Louisiana and is also one of the largest festivals in the state.
Traditionally, there are two parades – – the Children’s Parade on Friday and the main parade on Saturday. From the courthouse to the railroad tracks, all down Parkerson Avenue, food booths line the boulevard’s traffic median. At the end of Parkerson, by the railroad tracks, you’ll find the rides that are key to any festival. The food booths are always busy.
On the courthouse grounds, at the beginning of the downtown area, the main stage is always constructed. It looks a bit different now, but I remember so many years of stages built right there.
These booths looked quite different though, from the ones from years ago. Then most of the booths offered similar foods — funnel cakes, barbeque hamburgers (always using Jack Miller Barbeque Sauce), corn dogs, hot dogs, sausage, chicken, and so on. Today, though, I noticed greater variety. The booths offered Greek food, shrimp and crawfish dishes, gumbo, corndogs, and lots of the usual. Beer booths, margarita and other drinks — in addition to soft drinks and lemonade — also appear pretty frequently. Cotton candy, of course, is also around. No festival is right without it.
When I was a kid, the festival was always on Thursday and Friday, and we got out of school for both days (at least in Acadia Parish). I don’t remember when the festival shifted to the Friday-Saturday schedule that is usual now.
The Friday parade always includes the little princesses and queen (as in the past) and now also the little princes and king. Every elementary school in the parish chooses a little princess and prince to compete in the running for each year’s Queen and King. In my day, though, only the little girls got to dress up. And I do mean dress up!
Each elementary school also has a float of some type. I thought the parade seemed shorter than in my childhood — I remember more than one class at Egan Elementary either riding on a float or walking, but today, I think I saw only one float per school. I’m not sure that all the schools were represented, but a lot were. There were also floats and walking groups from church groups and other organizations.
And marching bands, of course. Always. I’m partial, I admit, but I truly think that Iota High School’s marching band was one of the best, if not the best, in both playing ability and marching ability. Some of the bands, I’m sad to say, didn’t seem to coordinate walking and playing too well.
I didn’t stay as long as I used to do. It took me a while to find a parking place — and then I paid $5 for a place. If I’d gone early I might have found a place, but I wasn’t ready to go that early. I parked and walked two blocks to the courthouse, then walked up and down the downtown boulevard. People come prepared here — lots of people bring lawn chairs and foldup chairs, ready to settle in and be comfortable. If they could do that and manage to find shade, they were lucky. Most were in the full sun. And it was not a cool day today at all.
Dress looked pretty normal — jeans and casual clothing. I remember that when I was in high school, if you had a date for the festival, you always wore matching shirts. That fad clearly has faded.
Today was fun. As I walked, I remembered my first Rice Festival in 1957. I have very strong memories of it. Why, you ask? Because that year, I was in first grade and was the Egan Elementary princess. That means that I got to wear a very fancy dress. Very. Fancy. And very big. Big. Some Regan cousins made the dress, which required a wired hoop slip underneath. I remember dressing in the courthouse in some room — and I remember that the room was very hot.
Somewhere in my family’s black and white photos are photographs of me in that dress — and of one moment in particular.
The dress was so wide that I couldn’t walk up the steps to the main stage at the courthouse. A state trooper had to lift me up and carry me up the stairs, holding me above the handrails. My teacher and some other people managed to capture that moment, which would be fine, except that my hoop skirt and underskirt both belled up, revealing my lace-edged panties. Yep. Great moment, folks.
The other major memory: I got to ride in a convertible. My first convertible ride — I was sitting on the back of back seat, my huge skirt spread out. I even made the evening news in some clips of the parade. I was more excited about the convertible than about being all dressed up.
How dressed up, you might ask? Just what did that dress look like? Here’s the formal portrait my mother had made:
I didn’t win — but had lots of fun.
From the 8th grade through 12th grade, I was in the Pep Squad, and we always marched in the Saturday parade. This meant that I had to bring clothes to change into — and I have no memory of where I changed, either. In senior year, I was in the honor guard, so that meant that I had to wear the leather belt into which a flag (either the Louisiana state flag or the American flag) rested.
The Saturday parade is always much more elaborate. There are lots of bands, lots of big, elaborate floats, and many convertibles. If there are any celebrities or politicians involved, they’ll be in the Saturday parade. This is when all of the visiting queens from other state festivals also participate, in addition to the young women who competed to be the Rice Festival Queen. These queens wear elaborate tiaras and dresses, with banners announcing the festival that each represents.
One of my clearest memories of a politician: when Jack and Jackie Kennedy rode in the parade. Kennedy was running for President, and a local family, the Reggies, were not only family friends of theirs but also central in Kennedy’s organization in Louisiana. The ties between the two families remained tight, and years later one of the Reggie daughters married Teddy Kennedy. On of the Reggie sons, a professional photographer, was the photographer at Caroline Kennedy’s wedding, and maybe others.
I remember thinking that Jackie was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen.
The parades and food booths and rides are key to the festival, but there’s always more. Remember that this is the International Rice Festival. There are always cooking competitions in numerous categories and age brackets. All dishes must involve rice, of course. Somewhere in my memorabilia, I think, are the ribbons I won for some of my entries a couple of times. Usually, though, these were for honorable mention, not for the big winners.
There’s always music too — live music at different points of the festival over the two days and three nights.
The choice of October (now set at the third week in October) was because that’s when rice was and is traditionally harvested.
Today was a nice reminder of my years of Rice Festival Fun.
I might go back tomorrow for a while.
Oh, and I still have the dress.