Mobile Celebrates Three Hundred Years

You're invited to join the festivities as the Port City puts on a yearlong birthday party.
Annette Thompson

Mobile's springtime seduces you out of winter's doldrums. The season slips in early to this coastal city, spreading colorful displays around squares trimmed by distinctive wrought iron. In adjoining neighborhoods, romantic streets of historic homes welcome strolling under live oak canopies, shaggy with resurrection ferns and Spanish moss.

It's easy to fall in love with Mobile this time of year. This same season captivated French colonists 300 years ago when they established a city along the banks of the river and the bay. Mobilians honor their tricentennial in 2002 with a civic renaissance accompanied by a 12-month party. Like a cherished garden that is never complete, this community continues to grow and refine. The best part is that you're invited to join the celebration.

A Procession of Blooms
Just as sweethearts bestow flowers on Valentine's Day, blossoms emerge naturally in Mobile this month. Surely Fifise Langlois had romance in mind when he brought the first azaleas to town in 1754 from his father's garden in France. Today his legacy festoons city yards with satiny ribbons of pink, purple, lavender, and red against a backdrop of glossy magnolias and weathered brick houses.

Petal lovers take over the campus of Spring Hill College during the Festival of Flowers. This year's event showcases historical trends in the city's garden designs and praises the success of ReBloom Mobile, an effort that urges area residents to plant flowers, shrubs, and trees--many of them forgotten native varieties. Locals cultivated the fertile idea so well that today private and public areas all glory in year-round splendor.

Searching for even more blossoms? A colorful spring display flourishes nearby at Bellingrath Gardens and Home. Its 65 acres, which opened to the public in 1932, reach a flowery peak between the middle and end of March, when 250,000 azaleas lavish their ornamental colors.

Joining the Parade
Springtime's palette is most vibrant at one of the dozens of Mardi Gras street parties. Mobilians' love affair with the season has produced a fanciful pre-Lenten extravaganza that's less rowdy than its New Orleans counterpart. The Port City welcomes families and joyous revelers alike to cheer processions of floats. Costumed carousers sling beads, candy, and--you guessed it--MoonPies.

Locals claim that theirs is the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the nation. They look back to 1703, when Roman Catholic colonists observed the medieval feasting tradition before Lent. Mobilians trace their modern-day festivities to 1866, when Joe Cain raised his community's sagging post-Civil War spirits. On Mardi Gras afternoon, he dressed up like a Chickasaw Indian, decorated his mule and coal wagon, and held a one-float parade.

The Community Party
The renaissance in Mobile's spirit has engendered a year full of tricentennial events to bring the community together in cherished old and new venues. Along the riverfront, Cooper Riverside Park hosts some of the Musical Mobile events in April. The Port City's affection for Big Band and Dixieland is evident in the headline acts, whose sounds waft in on salty breezes. The Fourth of July holiday also looks to the sea when a fleet of tall ships from around the world sails into Mobile Bay.

Nearby, the 1855 Southern Market/Old City Hall, just off Government Street, opens its doors to the Museum of Mobile. The organization's vast collections (including items such as a silver sword brandished by Admiral Raphael Semmes in the city's early days, as well as Mobile native Hank Aaron's home run baseballs) fill its new home. Another cultural institution, the Mobile Museum of Art, reopens in the fall after moving into expanded quarters that triple its size and scope.

Whichever event you choose to visit in Mobile this year, you're sure to be enchanted by this city's heritage.

For more information: Contact Mobile Tricentennial, Inc., P.O. Box 2002, Mobile, AL 36652; (251) 342-4386. Or contact the Mobile Convention & Visitors Corporation, 1 South Water Street, Mobile, AL 36602; 1-800-566-2453 or www.mobile.org. Lodging: Radisson Admiral Semmes Hotel, a historic high-rise hotel, (251) 432-8000; and Malaga Inn, an antiques-furnished historic home, (251) 438-4701. Additionally, the city has a number of affordable chain hotels.

This article is from the February 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.