Last Fling: The 1916 Galveston Cotton Carnival and Exposition

 Last Fling: The 1916 Galveston Cotton Carnival and Exposition
Cotton Palace (exterior) at the southwest corner of 27th Street and Avenue Q, 1909. G-632 FF1 #2, Galveston Photographic Subject Files: Selling and Distribution. Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

By Casey Greene

Starting in 1909, the Galveston Commercial Association organized and hosted an annual Cotton Carnival and Exposition as its main midsummer event. The celebration highlighted the importance of cotton and cotton products to the local and state economy. It also was a means of bringing excursionists and their dollars to the city.

The 1916 Cotton Carnival and Exposition was held July 4-16, 1916. The program reflected in part the First World War, which had embroiled European nations since August 1914. It also offered education and merriment through exhibits, demonstrations, dancers, vaudeville, and band performances. Multitudes from Houston, Beaumont, and other Texas cities arrived, thanks to special fares offered by railroads.

The celebration formally opened at 3 pm on July 4, 1916. James M. Kirwin (1872-1928), vicar general of the Galveston Catholic Diocese, gave the invocation. George Waverley Briggs (1883-1957), chairman of the Cotton Carnival’s executive committee, served as the master of ceremonies. Edmund R. Cheesborough (1867-1961), president of the Galveston Commercial Association, welcomed the throngs.

At the conclusion of the opening ceremonies, crowds toured varied exhibits in the Cotton Palace. This was a venue erected for the first Cotton Carnival in 1909. The Cotton Palace stood adjacent to Galveston Auditorium (erected in 1902) at the southwest corner of 27th Street and Avenue Q.

 Last Fling: The 1916 Galveston Cotton Carnival and Exposition
Cotton Palace (interior), August 1909. G-632 FF1 #1, Galveston Photographic Subject Files: Selling and Distribution. Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

Cotton and cottonseed exhibits were displayed closest to the entrance. These featured cotton bales and various types of products, such as cottonseed oil, soap, medicinals, and paper. Local chapters of the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Equal Suffrage Association had their own exhibits. An electrical exhibit included a replica of the Galveston-Houston interurban. Prominent local artist Boyer Gonzales, Sr. (1864-1934) curated an art exhibit of works of Texas artists. A related exhibit presented paintings of the Chicago Artists Guild.

The marine exhibit featured a model of El Sud, a Morgan Line steamer which operated between Galveston and New York, as well as a miniature lighthouse. Visitors viewed photographs of the Galveston grade raising and the construction of the Panama Canal. The United States Coast Guard presented a life-saving exhibit. An aquarium stood outside the Cotton Palace. Visitors also enjoyed a giant glass aquarium installed at Menard Park as a feature of the Marine Exhibit.

Publicity postcard for the Eighth Annual Cotton Carnival Exposition, Galveston, Texas, July 2-14, 1916. The postcard features a stylized arch which celebrates the Eighth Cotton Carnival and Exposition. According to the Galveston Daily News, May 27, 1916, “The central figure is an arch, symbolizing vaudeville, music and cotton.” Surf bathers in the Gulf of Mexico appear in the background, symbolizing Galveston’s appeal to visitors. Twenty-five thousand copies of the postcard were distributed to the general public in conjunction with a contest on June 1, 1916. Contestants wrote messages on the back of the postcards why visitors should make their way to Galveston. G-9125.2 FF2 #16, Galveston Photographic Subject Files: Parades. Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

Rain delayed the fireworks show until the conclusion of the Cotton Carnival’s second day. This was Rotary Day. Other special days followed, such as Texas Day (July 8), Houston Farmers’ Day (July 10), and Texas City Day (July 14).

Children’s Day was July 13. The Children’s Pageant drew approximately 12,000 people. The program emphasized patriotism and preparedness. It presented five vignettes of significant events in American and Texas history, such as Thanksgiving, the Revolution, and the Alamo. The Civil War episode was marred by children who dressed in Ku Klux Klan attire, receiving applause. The pageant ended with a performance of the national anthem and a cannon salute at Fort Crockett.

George W. Briggs, chairman, Executive Committee, Commercial Association, to Mrs. Boyer Gonzales, president, Galveston Art League, March 29, 1916. 2 pages. Miss Galvie-stone, the Commercial Association’s mascot, appears in the lower right corner on the first page. MSS 51-0123, Box 1 FF8, Galveston Art League Records. Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

Galveston Day (July 16, 1916) concluded the Cotton Carnival. A life-saving demonstration featured a mock rescue of a man from a “sunken ship” in the water. A fireworks exhibition occurred after the end of the thirteen-day event. The Galveston Tribune, June 17, 1916, reported that the spectacle enthralled a huge audience.

Hundreds of automobiles lined the beach during the exhibition while thousands of people saw them from the beach boulevard and the surrounding houses, in addition to those who were inside the grounds…The rockets seemed to go a little higher and the sparks seemed to be a little brighter than any ever before exhibited here.

The next Cotton Carnival and Exposition was scheduled for July 1-15, 1917. On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, bringing community celebrations to a halt. The Commercial Association did not sponsor the Cotton Carnival in 1918. This was also the case in 1919, despite the Armistice of November 11, 1918, which ended fighting between the Allies and Germany. Beginning in 1920, the Commercial Association organized and hosted beauty pageants as its annual summertime tourist attraction.