The Great Mardi Gras Road Race of 1921

New Orleans has a history of exciting events under its surface, Super Bowls, unique assortment of cajun cuisine, Bourbon Street is its own fanfare of activity, and to top it all off is the Mardi Gras festival that is held annually. During one of these Mardi Gras celebrations, one athletic club took it upon themselves to do something special. Sometimes the city has an organized road race like the Handicap Road Race of 1921.

This particular race was held by the Young Men’s Gymnastic Club. The club itself started from humble beginnings. Originally consisting of only 10 members in an old horse stable the men had repurposed. A ring of sawdust was the defining feature on the ground floor of the gymnasium. On the second floor, which could be considered more of a loft, there were meeting rooms with the lockers in the back of the building. The bathing facilities mostly consisted of tin tubs and filled by buckets, as well as the showers only being crooks with holes punched through. The worst part? No hot water!

The club was located at a number of places before it had settled at 224 North Rampart St. The original stable was located at Bienville and North Rampart streets, soon it was relocated to Canal street where it had an official upper floor. The club stayed for about a year before it was moved again to the Bostick residence. In 1882, it was held in the boy’s high school as well as a residence at Esplanade avenue and Claiborne street.

The club has a unique way of handling its business. Despite the suggestion by its name that implies it to be just an athletic club, the club does all it can to “maintain teams that will bring home trophies to New Orleans.”1 The club also needs one member as a requirement for an athletic event. Surprisingly no women were allowed inside of the building. However, members’ sons between the ages of 7 and 15 were allowed access to the pool and gymnasium twice a week, only under the supervision of the athletic director.

At the time of January, 1921, the club’s equipment was the best available in the South with a capacity for members that was rivaled by none of the other athletic clubs. Besides the weight rooms the club also had a wide assortment of other facilities such as “four bowling alleys, a shooting gallery… the swimming pool, filled daily… reading room, pool and billiard rooms card rooms, bar and restaurant.”1

The Young Men’s Gymnastic Club hosted an annual road race “around the Esplanade-Canal belt on Sunday, February 6”2 and was predicted to be “one of the biggest events of the year among cross country runners”. The original line up for the race consisted of 22 entrants: Breeland, Covington, Moore, Bogalusa, Mansou, Perry, Spicuzza, Penode, Weiser, Britsch, Massey, Menard, Fisk, Kurz, McCain, O’Hara, Huxen, C. Perry, Gasquet, Buller, Nelson, and the Hillary Brothers. 

A few of the runners had come from out of town to participate in the race. The previous year’s race had a runner from Chicago who took home both the time and place prizes for a seven mile race. The article states that “the Chicagoan drew away from Breeland in the early running, passed one by one a field of eleven competitors and won easily.” The coach of the Young Men’s Gymnastic Club’s team wanted the winner of this modified marathon to be from Louisiana. According to the article “Coach Simons has made up his mind that no matter who comes this year, the winner shall at least be a Louisianian…”2 In an attempt to revitalize the race coach Simons acquired a total of seven cups as prizes for various race winners split between time and place prizes.

As the date for the race became closer a total of 34 runners were on the list of participants. Some of the new members who have joined the club came freely. According to the article “the fact that the club and members are offering up even cups is another inducement for the large entry.”3 Each of the runners were given a time handicap starting from 1 minute to 10 minutes with Breland starting from scratch.

On February 24, the finals of the road race were held in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The article states that “Spencer of Hattiesburg, with a handicap of four minutes, was the only runner to place in the recent road race…He won the first prize. The time prize was one by Breeland, who also won fourth place.”4 All of the other prizes had gone to the members of the Young Men’s Gymnastics Club.

The road racing itself was a major event for the Mardi Gras season. According to historian Matthew Gilbert, Political leaders thought they were a great way to bring the nation together, believing that sports unified the nation, strengthened the ideals of citizenship, and demonstrated to foreign nations the superiority of U.S culture and democracy.”5 In particular, argues Gilbert, these races promoted an “‘expression of ethnic cohesion’”6 The diverse group of entrants in the New Orleans race reflected this ideal, though all the runners seem to have been white. 

Despite the great success of the race, not many races followed this particular race. The event was originally going to be an annual race, yet no evedince or record of the Young Men’s Gymnastic Club hosting another modified road race can be found. However, the club still thrived in the New Orleans area. As time went on additions were made to club events, regular dances were held in the gym, there was an opening of a handball court, promotional strunts were performed, and added boxing entertainment.

On March 6th, 1929 the club began with major renovations for their old run down building. “Pile drivers swung action and for months members were annoyed yet pleased with the noise of the rivet machines and concrete mixers.”6 Then the day came when the Young Men’s Gymnastic Club became known to New Orleans as: the New Orleans Athletic Club. A club that is still running strong today.

Notes

  1. “Y. M. G. C. Planning Biggest Surprise Event Is Huge Secret, and No One Breathes,” Times-Picayune, January 9, 1921, Access World News – Historical and Current.
  2. “Chicago Runner Wins Mardi Gras Seven-Mile Race,” Times-Picayune, February 15, 1920, Access World News – Historical and Current.
  3. “Thirty-Two Running In Gymnastic Handicap Race,” Times-Picayune, February 6, 1921, Access World News – Historical and Current.
  4.  “Hattiesburg Road Race,” Times-Picayune, February 25, 1921, Access World News – Historical and Current.
  5.  Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, “Hopi Footraces and American Marathons, 1912–1930,” American Quarterly 62, no. 1 (2010): 77–101, https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.0.0116.
  6. “NOAC History,” New Orleans Athletic Club, accessed December 6, 2020, http://neworleansathleticclub.com/about-noac/noac-history/.

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