1913 Potlatch

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The 1913 Potlatch was a two-day festival organized in April 1913 to "bury the hatchet" over numerous public squabbles that arose following the change from the Mayor-Alderman to City Commission form of government. The idea for the event, drawing from the cultural practice of Northwestern Indian tribes, may have been inspired by publicity from the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, Washington. It was organized locally by a committee from the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce chaired by Oscar Turner and including Hill Ferguson, John Sparrow and J. E. Shelby.

The observation began at 4:30 PM on Thursday, April 24, 1913 with the arrival of "Big Chief Potlatch" (portrayed by R. A. Brown) and his princesses (headed by Lydia Eustis) at Capitol Park. They rode to the park from Red Mountain in decorated automobiles on a mission of "peace, plenty and prosperity" and were welcomed by Chamber president W. P. G. Harding along with several prominent men invited because of their roles in public dissension, and hundreds of onlookers. Among the men present or represented were A. O. Lane and James Weatherly of the City Commission, A. J. Dickinson, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Birmingham, A. M. Lynn of the Birmingham Water Works, Armenius Bennett from the Birmingham Fire Department, E. S. Ingram, James J. Smith of the Birmingham Ledger, A. H. Ford of the Birmingham Railway, Light & Power Co., Police Chief George Bodeker, Frank P. Glass from the Birmingham News, John Kaul from the Birmingham Parks & Recreation Board, and Frank W. Smith, former Elyton mayor.

After being welcomed, Potlatch presented a hatchet, a symbol of dissension, which was buried in the park in a small casket. He also lit a peace pipe, which was passed among the invited guests. In James Sulzby Jr's account, from his 1945 book Birmingham Sketches, the gesture was said to be effective in bringing "unity in the community."

That evening, the Potlatch continued with a festive parade. Twenty-one floats brought to Birmingham from New Orleans' recent Mardi-Gras. The flower-covered floats were manned by members of the Improved Order of Red Men in "full Indian costumes," headed by grand marshal E. J. McCrossin. The floats depicted an allegorical narrative involving a great chief's quest for a suitable hunting ground. Torches set into the ground along the route illuminated the displays.

A second parade, scheduled for Friday afternoon, was all but rained out with only a few of locally-made floats appearing in the downpour to compete for the prize recognizing the most artistic depiction of "Birmingham on Wheels". A "Potlatch Powwow and Ball" was scheduled for that evening at East Lake Park, but was also mostly rained out. The brave men and women that did appear were able to dance "until a late hour." while another make-up ball was hastily arranged for Monday evening.

In part because of the rain, and in part because of inadequate fund-raising efforts, the Potlatch closed with $3,000 in unpaid debts. A second round of fund raising covered the deficit. The event was never repeated.

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