BY KENNETH HALL
Imagine Miss Louise Frances Dodge and George Hardee watching the 2012 Gasparilla Pirate Invasion from the balcony of the Tampa Convention Center or witnessing the majesty of the Parade of Pirates as it snakes its way along Bayshore Blvd. to the delight of 250,000 spectators. What thoughts would race through their heads as the pair beheld the contemporary version of the event they conceived back in 1904?
"I think she'd be really happy with it and be very proud of how much Gasparilla has grown," says Don Barnes, executive officer for Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. "Look at how far Tampa has come since then, from a town that had just gotten its first railway system to what I consider to be a large hub for tourism and marketing in the state of Florida. That simple idea from 1904 has transformed into the largest children's parade and the third largest single-day parade in the U.S., with a quarter of a million attendees per year. That's pretty amazing and it has stood the test of time. I would make the assumption that the reason our football team is called the Buccaneers is because of Gasparilla."
What we have come to know as Gasparilla had its origins in the newsroom of the old Tampa Tribune building at Franklin and Polk streets, according to the exhaustive history compiled by Dr. Bill Carson, the official historian of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. Dodge, the Tribune's society editor, had taken it upon herself to develop a May Day Festival that she hoped would evolve into a statewide celebration. A chance encounter with George Hardee, Tampa's collector of customs, put Dodge's festival plans on a completely different trajectory.
Born and raised in New Orleans, the city of Mardi Gras, Hardee knew a thing or two about festivals, which made him an ideal foil for Dodge's vision. More importantly, Hardee was familiar with the legend of one Jose Gaspar, a ruthless gentleman pirate.
Since Gaspar was more legend than history, an amalgam of various pirates and their exploits whose tales grew more wondrous with each telling, there was no reason he couldn't have invaded the city of Tampa. After all, if history could not place Gaspar anywhere specific, then history could neither confirm nor deny his Tampa exploits.
To say that the Tampa of 1904 was different from the Tampa of today goes without saying. The cigar industry was booming in Ybor City and Henry Plant's railroad and iconic Tampa Bay Hotel (now the University of Tampa) were constant reminders to citizens that Tampa was poised for bigger things. Yet, like the rest of the country, Tampa's citizens had no air conditioning, and horses and draft animals were the primary means of transportation and work. The aroma of horse dung wafting through the hot humid air would have been as common to Tampa residents of 1904 as automobile exhaust is today. Forget about iPads. In 1904, folks were excited about the new splinterless toilet paper. Daily chores were far more labor intensive. They weren't exactly pioneer days in 1904 Tampa, but it wasn't a place that modern Floridians would want to visit for too long.
It was in this early 20th century world that Dodge and Hardee conspired to launch a pirate invasion of Tampa's 20,000 or so residents. As captain of the newly formed Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, and under the guidance of its leader Jose Gaspar, Hardee began recruiting the areas most fearless and ruthless men of adventure. Taking a cue from the gentlemanly side of the Jose Gaspar legend, Hardee sent a missive to Edwin Lambright, city editor of The Tampa Tribune. The letter warned that any resistance to the arrival of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla during Tampa's May Day Festival would have unpleasant consequences. Lambright did his duty in warning the public of potential disaster by printing the letter in full on the font page of the newspaper. Citizens needed to be informed.
Hardee assembled his army of 50 battle-ready pirates of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla on May 4, 1904. They had no ship, but being crafty pirates, they improvised an invasion on horseback from Plant Park. There was a slight problem. Almost half of the bloodthirsty pirates were afraid of horses.
"I would say that is extremely accurate because it came right out of our board minutes," Barnes says of the supposed equinophobia. "Isn't that amazing?"
So the first Gasparilla Pirate Invasion consisted of cavalry and infantry, all masked and resplendent in their finest satin pirate attire.
Lambright's decision to print the letter from Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla on The Tampa Tribune's front page had rallied Tampa's citizens, who lined the parade route from Plant Park to the old courthouse where the Tampa Police Station now stands. They greeted the invading pirates and their king and queen with cheers rather than volleys, and a tradition was born.
According to the official history of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, "Tampa society and the Tampa public generally were so enthusiastic about the first 'invasion' of the Mystic Krewe that a citywide demand was voiced that the organization be made permanent," Lambright said.
As time went on and the legend of Jose Gaspar grew, so did the Gasparilla celebration. Tired of being landlubbers, the pirates commandeered the Samuel T. Beacham in 1911 and began invading Tampa by water. With their booty, the pirates eventually purchased their own ship, The Jose Gasparilla, in 1937, and launched the current ship, The Jose Gasparilla II, in 1954.
"Beginning with the first water invasion in 1911, The Jose Gasparilla used to sail from the Tampa Yacht and Country Club across the bay and continue up the Hillsborough River to the landing dock at the Tampa Bay Hotel," explains Carson. "Beginning in 1976, the ship docked in the harbor across from Tampa General Hospital."
"We are the only festival in the world that celebrates with a real pirate ship," Barnes adds. "In 1947, we began to expand with the children's parade, which has exploded into the Gasparilla Children's Festival, which is such a great event."
Beads have become such an iconic tradition of Gasparilla that folks might be surprised to learn they are a fairly recent addition to the festivities.
"In early parades, pirates threw the spent blank pistol cartridges into the crowd," Carson says. "Over the years, the pirate booty thrown into the crowds evolved into candy, doubloons and spent pistol shells. In 1988, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla began issuing Gasparilla doubloons, featuring the images of the sitting king and queen."
Barnes says he believes that beads became part of the tradition in the early 1980s, replacing the shell casings, but he doesn't know if the pirates let the casings cool before tossing them into the crowds. "It was a wilder west back then," he adds.
Over the years, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla grew larger, but it wasn't until 1966 that a second krewe, the Krewe of Venus, began to participate in the Parade of Pirates, with the Knights of Sant' Yago joining in 1973.
"The Krewe of Venus was actually a spin off of the major New Orleans krewe," Barnes explains. "We have upwards of 60 krewes now, and 56 of them will be participating in this year's parade."
In 1985, the parade moved to the familiar Bayshore Boulevard route. "Prior to 1985, the parade started downtown and ended at the former State Fairgrounds on North Blvd. In 1985, the route was changed to begin at the corner of Bayshore Boulevard and Rome Avenue and end in downtown Tampa," Carson says. "In 1987, the parade was held on a Monday for the last time. In the years since then, the parade has been held on a Saturday."
According to Carson, the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates was first broadcast on WFLA in 1955, and intermittently during the following years until it became an annual televised event. Barnes says he would welcome a national television audience.
"I would love to see the parade broadcast nationally like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rose Parade," Barnes adds. "We are always looking for opportunities to expand our audience because the sole purpose of Gasparilla is to highlight the splendid culture and diversity that we have here in Tampa."
Dodge and Hardee would no doubt be pleased that their efforts to create a May Day Festival has endured. There is little reason to not think the tradition will continue well into the future. The mayor will hand over the keys to the city and suffer the raucous consequences of the city in siege. What choice does a mayor have?
"I don't know of any time when the mayor has refused to hand over the keys to the city," Barnes says. "We are armed to the teeth and will have to do battle if they ever refuse."