By Doug Alderson
Tallahassee’s Centennial Parade in 1924. Photo courtesy of J. Doug Smith
The St. Petersburg Independent newspaper called Tallahassee-Leon County’s 1924 centennial commemoration “the finest celebration ever held in Florida.” That was the type of praise lauded upon Tallahassee’s centennial efforts of November 9-15, 1924. The time period was chosen to commemorate the first meeting of Florida’s Legislative Council held in a log cabin capitol building in Tallahassee one hundred years before.
By all accounts the Centennial celebration that November was a gala affair with several balls, a general parade, a children’s parade, fireworks show, a “Tallahassee Girl” pageant, band concerts, “sacred” Sunday church concerts, an opera at the Florida State College for Women, aquatic sports events at Lake Bradford, the crowning of a king and queen, dedication of a reproduction of the first log cabin capitol built by local Boy Scouts, and the display of hundreds of public and private historical items in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol that were guarded day and night. The items included numerous unpublished territorial documents and accounts of local duels, original letters from famous generals and presidents, a Spanish conquistador helmet plowed up near Mission San Luis, a large arrowhead collection, items from Prince and Princess Murat’s home, a lock of Catherine Murat’s hair, a favorite tomahawk of Seminole Chief Tallahassee, a sword captured at the Battle of Gettysburg, and a 1737 French desk owned by Thomas Jefferson handed down through the Eppes family in Tallahassee. Every Florida citizen was encouraged to view the items and admission was free.
Several other Florida communities participated, including the Scotch Highlanders Band from St. Petersburg and a motorcade from the Tamiami Trail Association. The Seaboard Air Line railroad, the freight station of which is now the Leon County/Visit Tallahassee Visitor’s Center, provided special rates to Tallahassee for the Centennial. Ten thousand programs were printed and special buttons were distributed. The Florida State College for Women put together a Centennial history booklet. A Centennial song was written by Frank P. Woodward for the occasion—“The Call of Tallahassee.” The Centennial celebration drew about 25,000 visitors.
The Centennial occurred when strict Jim Crow laws were in place, separating black and white people during most public events. “Separate but equal” was rarely achieved during these times, and the Centennial celebration was no exception. The white folks had the first six days while the last day, November 15, was deemed “Colored people’s day.” Despite the arrangement, newspaper accounts lauded the black community for their full participation in the celebration. The African American parade was a mile long with two bands and floats depicting early home life, slavery days, and the various programs of the state agricultural and mechanical college (now Florida A&M University) ranging from nursing to mechanical arts and farming.
As a more permanent landmark of the Centennial, the city established “Centennial Field” in downtown, now part of Cascades Park. Minor League baseball teams played there along with youth baseball and football teams. The field was demolished in 1975. Parts of the stone wall of Centennial Field still border the western end of Cascades Park.
In 1974, Tallahassee and Leon County’s Sesquicentennial, the kickoff celebration was a historical pageant at Centennial Field on Monday, March 4th. Long-time Tallahassee Democrat editor Malcolm Johnson was the master of ceremonies and Mrs. Eleanor Ketchum chaired the Sesquicentennial Committee. Each of Tallahassee’s three public high schools at the time, Godby, Rickards, and Leon, performed John Philip Sousa marches and other numbers. All of the high school bands and choruses combined to play the “Star-Spangled Banner” as the “Sesquicentennial candle” was ceremonially lit.
The City of Tallahassee’s founding was reenacted with Department of Agriculture Secretary Doyle Conner playing Dr. William H. Simmons of St. Augustine while John Lee Williams was played by Louis Polatty of the Chamber of Commerce. Polatty had replaced long-time Tallahassee political leader Mallory Horne whose mother had died the day before. But before the pageant, Conner rode to Tallahassee from St. Augustine on horseback while Horne sailed from Pensacola to St. Marks.
At the March 4 Centennial Field pageant, dozens of other citizens portrayed both Native Americans and early settlers. Historic figures portrayed included FSU founder Francis Eppes, Territorial Surveyor General Robert Butler, early banker B.C. Lewis, and free black builder George Proctor. Maypole dancers were portrayed by students from Astoria Park Elementary School.
Post-territorial history was portrayed at the pageant, including “Aunt” Memory, a woman born into slavery who had raised enough funds by selling portraits of herself to attend the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. There were portrayals of a World War I Color Guard, World War II soldiers, and Chinese pilots who trained at Mabry Army Airfield. Following the pageant, the first groundbreaking ceremony for Cascades Park was held, a park that later had to be closed to remove contaminated soil before the current park was established. The occasion was attended by Governor Reubin Askew and the entire Florida Cabinet.
Springtime Tallahassee hosted several events in the weeks after the pageant. They included a performance of Cyril Scott’s “Tallahassee Suite” and other arrangements by the FSU Symphony Orchestra, a performance of several poems by author Gloria Jahoda, and a parade of governors on April 6, “Spring Saturday.” Governor Askew was joined by several past governors and their families. The next day, Pisgah Methodist Church invited people of all denominations to a church service and old-fashioned dinner followed by an “old-timey Sunday Social” at LeMoyne Art Foundation.
In the following months, featured events included sidewalk art shows, historic tours, garden and wildflower pilgrimages, and a country folk festival. A climax was a reenactment of the first legislative council meeting on November 8th, one that included a reproduction of the original 1824 log cabin capitol building. On December 23rd, church groups reenacted what is believed to be the first Christmas observance by Hernando de Soto’s expedition party in 1539. Then, the first Christmas site was thought to be along the shores of Lake Jackson.
The Tallahassee Democrat published a special edition for the sesquicentennial, written by most of the staff’s reporters and editor Malcolm Johnson. In it, complete with numerous ellipses’, they concluded: “Throughout the year 1974 Tallahassee citizens are celebrating a love affair with their beautiful, beguiling capital that has endured for 150 years. A love that has lasted through triumph and tragedy…storm and fire…progress and adversity. The red carpet is rolled out…flags flying…trumpets sounding…The band is playing…fireworks are crackling and balloons bursting…There’s dancing in the streets…It’s Mardi Gras in Tallahassee all year long.”
Doug Alderson is a Tallahassee-Leon County Bicentennial content provider for Visit Tallahassee and the Chair of the Bicentennial History Task Force. He is also the author of several award-winning books about Florida history and natural history.