In late February of 1891, a fire broke out in what was then the small river town of Baton Rouge. As the alarm sounded, calling volunteer fire companies to the burning building, a long line of fire wagons laden with flowers, streamers and banners rushed as one to contain the blaze.
After extinguishing the roof fire at the electric light plant, the firemen returned to Third Street, bedecked wagons in tow, to start their previously scheduled parade.
LSU Libraries photographic processing archivist Mark Martin learned of the event, recounted in the 1891 Daily Advocate, a predecessor to The Advocate, as he paged through a collection of black-and-white photographs by 19th-century photographer Andrew D. Lytle.
Lytle’s curious photographs display an assortment of men, women and children posing with what appear to be decorated parade floats. The men, Martin noticed, also seem to be dressed in old-fashioned firemen’s uniforms.
After some digging, Martin uncovered a long-forgotten fact from Baton Rouge history: From roughly 1850 to around 1912 — with some gaps during the Civil War — the volunteer fire companies of Baton Rouge hosted a firemen’s parade each year to honor George Washington’s birthday.
In a city built almost entirely of wood, volunteer fire companies served a vital purpose before Baton Rouge established municipal fire departments. Though the parade honored Washington — for whom one of the companies was named — the February festivities also gave the city a chance to recognize the volunteers and throw a big party while they were at it.
“It was a celebration of the fireman who saved the town every time there was a fire,” Martin said. “It was a celebration of the community. It was probably, at least in the early decades, the biggest social event for the entire city.”
The Daily Advocate's account of the 1891 parade described Washington Company No. 1 as the most-elaborately decorated unit of the day.
"The decoration represented a large cluster of clouds of variegated hues, from which fell streams of sparkling water, forming a rainbow, over the circle of which glided six lovely little water nymphs in search of the hidden treasures which an old legend tells us is buried at the intersection of the rainbow with the earth."
At the base of the rainbow were strands of gold, sparkling diamonds and other precious gems, which today sound a lot like Mardi Gras beads.
While the six volunteer fire companies that organized that year's parade were not exactly like the Mardi Gras krewes of today, they shared some of the same responsibilities, such as organizing a fireman’s ball in the fortnight leading up to the festivities and hosting an extensive public banquet. All funds generated went to both the parade and fire company expenses.
Firemen, along with their wives, children and friends, decorated the fire wagons and carriages around a dedicated theme, whether it was Greek mythology or the state’s history. Their costumes were handmade.
Baton Rouge had fewer than 10,000 people at the time, "so pretty much everybody was involved in some way," Martin said.
By the onset of World War I, the firemen’s parade had died. Baton Rouge entered a spell in which no February parades were held but in the early 1930s, Mardi Gras took the city by storm.
“The firemen's parades were like something we know,” Martin said. “But, they were not like anything we know.”
Today, Mardi Gras krewes will often reach out to the Baton Rouge Fire Department to invite them to march in a parade, such as for last week's krewes of Orion and Mystique.
In a statement, the department said that, most often, people only deal with firefighters in a time of crisis: "Those are never joyous times. It is a welcomed change of pace for firefighters to have the opportunity to participate in events like this," the agency said. "Witnessing the smiles and elation from the community is always a great joy."