Rarely can an entire phenomenon in Mardi Gras be attributed to one man, but when it comes to the history of truck parades, that is not the case. The undisputed father of the trucking tradition is Chris Valley.
The introduction of the automobile and flatbed trucks to America in the early 20th century offered a new means for revelers to celebrate in New Orleans. Often on Fat Tuesday, families and friends would don costumes and masks and ride through the city on trucks.
In 1933, when Rex experienced its only rainout, rendering Fat Tuesday “paradeless,” the 28-year-old Valley conceived the idea of organizing these independent truck-riding groups into a unified parade that would follow Rex.
It took him two years, but the result was the formation of the Krewe of Elks Orleanians. Sponsored by the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Lodge No. 30, the procession grew from 58 flatbed trucks in 1935 to 182 18-wheelers in 1971. To reduce the length of the parading day, the city then asked the Elks to reduce, by attrition, the number of trucks in its parade to 150.
Truck parades offer groups and families an opportunity to participate in a Mardi Gras parade in an inexpensive way. They also extend the day for Fat Tuesday parade-goers eager to catch even more throws before the Carnival season comes to a close.
The riders may be neighborhood clubs, fraternities or just individuals banded together for a giant rolling picnic. (Food and beverages are allowed on the trucks, and a comfort station is standard equipment.) Forty-foot flatbed trucks are rented and decorated according to a theme of the group’s choosing. A Best Float competition is held in each parade, with the winning truck earning the first position in the following year’s procession.
In 1947 the Krewe of Crescent City was organized. It continues to follow the Elks Orleanians and is the final parade of the season in New Orleans.
In Jefferson Parish, two truck parades started following the Argus parade in the mid-1970s. The Elks Jeffersonians and the Krewe of Jefferson remain very popular in Metairie, attracting riders from several parishes.
Through the years, other truck krewes have come and gone, including the Chalmette Lions, the Krewe of St. Bernard and, most notably, the Elks Gretna, which from 1983 to 2001 rolled behind the Grela parade on Fat Tuesday with as many as 65 trucks.
According to the book "Mardi Gras Truck Doubloons" by Charles V. Booth, “From 1963 to 1988 many of the truck krewes minted their own doubloons or wooden nickels. Interest peaked in 1969, when 117 trucks identified their own club with a doubloon.”
For the 2018 season, nearly 300 trucks will take part in the four parades that roll on Fat Tuesday.