Day Trip: Mardi Gras history in Mobile
Posted on February 9, 2022 by Kristen Echols
The history of Mardi Gras in Mobile is as rich and as longstanding as that of the city itself. Rooted deep in the culture of French colonists who founded Mobile in 1702, the city’s first Mardi Gras celebration was held that following year and has become an annual staple and draw for the Port City. With a celebration so entwined with Mobile history, the festivities certainly do not start nor end with the colorful parades that take place for several weeks in late winter. For those looking for a deeper or alternative way to celebrate Mardi Gras, Mobile is teeming with dedications and nods to the event’s local history.
Gear up at Toomey’s
Whether you are looking for parade throws or home décor to celebrate the season, Toomey’s Mardi Gras is an essential destination. The store is covered with purple, gold, green and beads galore while Mobile figures such as Joe Cain “watch” shoppers from a mural above as they prepare for the annual celebration. Items such as tote bags and water bottles are sold for parade-goers to use while vying for treats during a parade. With everything from festive T-shirts to king-cake-scented candles (complete with a plastic baby in the wax) to every Moon Pie flavor imaginable, Toomey’s is the go-to spot for all things Mardi Gras.
Located at 755 McRae Ave., just off Government Boulevard, Toomey’s is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and 12 to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Online shopping is available on the website at toomeysmardigras.com, where organizations can place orders for custom trinkets and throws.
King cake at Pollman’s
Pollman’s Bake Shop offers some of the most decadent freshly baked desserts in Mobile. But in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, the bakery ups the ante with Mardi Gras-themed treats like masquerade cookies and, of course, lots of king cake. While Pollman’s sells king cake made fresh in its shops daily during the Mardi Gras season, online orders for king cake and other custom treats can be made on the Pollman’s Bake Shop website. For a snack, miniature single-serving king cakes also are sold in the shops for those looking to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Pollman’s Bake Shop is open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, closing 30 minutes earlier on Saturdays, on 750 S. Broad St. The bakery has two other locations, one on 4464 Old Shell Rd. and one in the RSA Trustmark Building at 107 Saint Francis St. in downtown Mobile.
History at the Mobile Carnival Museum
The place to get the finest glimpse into Mobile’s Mardi Gras history is the city’s Carnival Museum. Jester statues welcome guests on the building’s front porch as they enter an encapsulation of some of the city’s past notable Mardi Gras events. From the first celebration in 1703, the museum chronicles the development of Mardi Gras through the city’s history, and it features artifacts such as memorabilia from Mobile mystic societies and “royal” garments from past Carnival queens. Visitors can board a float in the museum to take photos and further immerse themselves in the Mardi Gras experience.
The Mobile Carnival Museum is located at the Bernstein-Bush mansion at 355 Government St. and is open on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Relax at Mardi Gras Park
Mobile’s Mardi Gras Park opened in 2016 to honor the city’s significance as the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the United States. The park is flanked by statues of significant figures in Mobile’s Mardi Gras history, including Joe Cain and Ethel Hodsgon, who was Mobile’s first Mardi Gras queen. The tree standing in the park’s center now is decorated for the year’s Mardi Gras festivities. When the weather permits, the park is the ideal place to stroll through while enjoying a miniature king cake. Mardi Gras Park is located at the intersection of Government Street and S. Royal Street in downtown.
Get a glimpse of Joe Cain’s home and gravesite
Mobile’s Mardi Gras likely would not exist as it does today had it not been for Joe Cain, who is credited with reviving the city’s carnival-style celebrations in 1866 after the end of the Civil War. Each year, more than a century after his death, Joe Cain still serves as the herald of Mardi Gras in Mobile, especially on Joe Cain Day, which is celebrated the Sunday before Mardi Gras.
Cain’s home is still standing on Augusta Street within the Oakleigh Historic Garden District. The house, currently painted blue, now is privately owned, but the historical marker standing outside of its white picket fence makes the place difficult to miss. At the end of the city’s annual Joe Cain Classic 5K, a post-race after-party is held in front of the home.
The gravesite for Joseph Stillwell Cain, Jr. is located in the Church Street Graveyard. His final resting place often can be seen decorated with beads and other throws. The Church Street Graveyard is located just off Government Street in downtown, right behind the Ben May Main Library.
While observing these hallmarks of Mobile history, keep an eye out for one of Cain’s infamous Merry Widows, who, dressed head to toe in black, loudly mourn their dearly departed husband at his grave and hold a toast to his memory outside his home each year on Joe Cain Day.