When a young family lost their new barn and chickens to a fire in February 2011, friends involved with the Columbia farmers market quickly organized a boisterous party to help them recover and lift their spirits.
That was the seed of Mardi Gras Columbia, coming up Saturday.
Now in its fifth year, a spirit of community, charity and carefree fun continues to inspire what many consider the coolest festival of the year. It’s held at the urban farm City Roots and now raises money crucial to The Animal Mission, which took over sponsorship last year.
Debbie McDaniel, the Five Points businesswoman crowned queen of 2013’s Mardi Gras parade, said the festival in her Rosewood neighborhood has become one of her favorite social events.
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People come in costume, favoring the traditional purple, gold and green. They tote their kids and dogs. And they bring enough money for beer and Cajun-inspired food. (Admission is $10; no charge for those 12 and younger.)
“It’s almost like a throwback to the ’70s,” McDaniel said. “I’m sitting on the ground watching toddlers dance in front of the stage. People of all ages, all walks of life – and it is so mellow.”
Organizers have made a few changes to Saturday’s event.
The 11 a.m. parade is shorter and moves clockwise from City Roots up Holt Drive and Woodrow Street to Rosewood Drive, then down South Holly Street to Airport Boulevard.
Especially along streets in the neighborhood, folks line the route to catch the traditional shiny strands of beads thrown by krewe members on foot and on floats.
A shorter parade route means the music can start earlier – and with bluegrass, blues, zydeco and straight-up rock, there’s something for just about every taste. The headliner is Acoustic Syndicate, with Can’t Kids serving as the local headliner. (See mardigrascolumbia.com)
There will be three stages instead of four, allowing organizers to funnel more money to the 16 bands, said organizer Tom Hall, this year’s king.
The festival is spreading out, too, accommodating more people and a variety of food trucks serving everything from red beans and rice to crawfish, alligator and gumbo.
Lastly, there’s a 5K for the first time, what they’re calling a lagniappe (“LAN-yap”), a Louisiana Creole word for a little something extra. The race begins at 8 a.m. at the soccer fields across from the Hamilton-Owens Airport. In keeping with the spirit of Mardi Gras, anyone who finishes the race — and is at least 21 — gets a free beer at the finish line, courtesy of River Rat Brewery, said Ken Kelly, a member of the original Krewe de Columbi Ya-Ya.
Kelly said one reason the festival is special is because it’s the first of the year, when folks have developed cabin fever.
“Mardi Gras falls at a time when people are ready for a little bit of a blowout,” said Kelly, a university professor who wants more college students to join in the camaraderie of Mardi Gras Columbia. “It’s gray, cold. People are ready for spring, even if you don’t really feel it” in the air.
But also, Kelly said, Columbia residents are eager to participate in inclusive community events – and that’s what Mardi Gras Columbia has come to symbolize.
As Cindi Boiter put it, people just want to get together and celebrate their humanity. “You see people you haven’t seen in awhile. You hug them and you spend the day just immersed in this communal love for being there at that moment in time.”
It may sound like she’s overstating it, she said, but she’s not.
The atmosphere is unique — in part because Mardi Gras Columbia has a small, neighborhood feel. But crowds have increased each year, with about 5,000 attending last year, organizers said.
The sponsor, The Animal Mission, wants the festival to grow because that will bolster donations to its free spay-neuter program. In 2013, the festival generated $30,000, president Will Brennan said.
“If we can get 200, 300 more people a year, that’s great,” he said.
Some founders of the event worry Mardi Gras Columbia will lose appeal if it continues to expand. They’re proud there’s never been an arrest or incident requiring the police to do much more than stop people from parking in front of fire hydrants.
“We enjoy the scale that it is,” Kelly said. “When we started it, we were just a few hundred people in 2011, and last year it was a few thousand people. We don’t want it to turn into St. Patrick’s Day, where there are thousands and thousands of people. But at the same time, we want people to come out and enjoy it.”
Hall, who lived in New Orleans for several years and modeled the local event after Mardi Gras there, said: “We’re benevolent and we’re in it for a good time and for the community. We’re really sincere about our goals, to bring in an inclusive event for Columbia that’s ... authentic.”
The solution may be for the festival to grow with more krewes to join in the parade and raise money for charity, Boiter said. That’s been a bit of a struggle, though the event began with one and now has four krewes, groups of like-minded people who host balls and get together to build floats for the parade.
Meanwhile, the family that inspired the original Mardi Gras Columbia is doing well, in part because of the help they received five years ago from people associated with the farmers market.
Keith and Robin Willoughby rebuilt their barn at Wil-Moore Farms in Lugoff, getting back on their feet much more quickly than they could have otherwise.
As much as money, Keith Willoughby said, the community of Mardi Gras Columbia provided encouragement – and it means a lot to his family, even today.