Back before the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970, and long before the first French Quarter Fest in the ’80s, there was the original spring event dedicated to celebrating the unique cultural heritage of New Orleans: Spring Fiesta.
“We were founded in 1937, back in a time where nobody outside of the city limits knew about all the unique and historical aspects of this city,” said Tyra Treadway, who has served as president of The New Orleans Spring Fiesta Association for the past three years. “Even in Baton Rouge, nobody knew about red beans.”
To help promote their city, a small group of founding members created the association with the goal of providing visiting tourists with some education and guidance.
“Our headquarters was in the Pontalba building, and served as the first tourism information site in the city,” Treadway said. “Volunteers would come and staff it every day, and we’d give advice to tourists on where to eat and what to see.”
Eventually, the association began leading its own tours. “During two weeks in March or April, we’d take buses throughout the countryside, offering visitors tours of places like Bayou Teche, Bayou Lafourche and local plantations like the River Road Plantation,” she said. “We would charge a fee for the tours, and those fees were used to maintain our headquarters.”
Interest and membership in the organization grew.
“We used to have almost 1,000 members, and they were all very active,” Treadway said.
With that kind of involvement, the group created a host of springtime events, including home tours in the French Quarter, an arts showcase in Pirates Alley, an art show in Jackson Square, various equestrian events and a “Day at the Races,” where the Spring Fiesta Association sponsored its own horse race at the Fairgrounds.
Over the years, however, the association’s events were eclipsed by new celebrations.
“Jazz Fest started during one of our home tour weekends, in part to take advantage of the people we were already drawing to the city,” she said. “And as they became more popular, we changed our dates to after Easter. But then the French Quarter Festival started up on that date, and again, we had to move.”
Almost 80 years later, Spring Fiesta membership is much smaller than it once was — 150 to 180 members, and growing — and the fiesta has condensed to two weekends of home and walking tours of the French Quarter (Saturday and Sunday and March 12-13 this year) along with a parade.
“Nowadays, everyone does tours,” Treadway said, “but I think what sets our apart is the amount of knowledge we have. A lot of our members have actually gone on to become licensed tour guides.”
She says many of the association’s members have been with the organization for 50 years or more, and have brought in their children and grandchildren. It is this kind of intergenerational involvement that the organization celebrates with an annual royal court and parade.
“On March 12, our queen and her court — which includes demoiselles, maid and jewel bearers — will meet at our current headquarters at 826 St. Anne, and we will all walk to Jackson Square, where they will be presented to the public at 3 p.m,” she said. “Our queen this year is actually Camille Catherine (Le Gardeur de Tilly), the daughter of Tara Doskey, our publicity manager.”
A junior at Sewanee: The University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, Camille Le Gardeur de Tilly says her involvement with the association has given her some unique glimpses at the history of New Orleans.
“When I was a demoiselle, I volunteered as a docent for one of the homes on tour,” she said. “The homeowner told us that when he was repairing the floors in his French Quarter home he found a photo album of a beautiful young African-American girl and a Union Army soldier hidden beneath the floorboards, which he showed to us and the people on tour. It was like going back in time.”
At 3:30 p.m., the court will walk back to the association’s headquarters and line up for the parade. The parade is sure to include elaborate carriages and live bands, with the court handing out fresh flowers to revelers.
“Spring is such a magical time in our city, so we’re so excited to celebrate it,” Treadway said. “It’s our way of showing how much we love New Orleans.”