The first National Peanut Festival occurred in Dothan, Alabama, on November 10-12, 1938. Most of us recall that first festival for hosting Dr. George Washington Carver’s address, “Great Creator, What is a Peanut and Why Do You Make It?”
But the thing that received the most publicity was a community historical pageant, “Parade of the Years,” with a cast of 400 local people and a stage 200 feet long performed at the Wiregrass Memorial Stadium.
Little remembered now, such community historical pageants were so common from 1900 through the 1940s that a number of businesses staged them around the United States. One of the largest – and the one who put on Dothan’s “Parade of the Years,” was the John B. Rogers Company of Fostoria, Ohio.
Rogers, an attorney, founded the company in 1903 to put on indoor amateur shows for small organizations like women’s clubs and fraternities. In 1919, he staged his first historical pageant, and business boomed as he sent organizers and show-masters to communities across the nation. By the time the company closed in 1977, official estimated that it had staged thousands, and over any particular summer staged as many as seventy.
Rogers’s “mammoth spectacles” had a formula, and Dothan’s followed suit. Three weeks before kickoff, a “pageant master” arrived to make a casting call and start the production. Harry Dorrington brought props with him but called on the community to provide more pieces that were specific to Dothan. He oversaw stage construction as well as cast and crew recruitment and training, assisted by local social leaders.
“Parade of the Years” had fourteen episodes. It opened its first night, Thursday, November 10, with a one-time introduction of Dorothy McArthur as Miss Dothan and Winnie Turner as Miss Houston County. Their ticket sales determined their status, with the Miss Dothan title as the prize selling the most and the title of Miss Houston County for second place. Emcee Sonny Harris, accompanied by the 117th Field Artillery Band and the 43-member Peanut Festival Choir presented the winners.
Following this was the standard Rogers introduction of Miss Columbia (in this case representing the United States rather than the Houston County town) and a parade of young women representing each of the 48 states. This became the opening scene for the remaining productions.
Then the play itself began. Episode 1, “In the Beginning,” celebrated nature with a “dance of sprites,” another Rogers standard, that featured dancers emerging from the shadows, swaying slowly to soft music then dancing faster and faster representing “life becom[ing] vibrant, powerful, glorious.” (“Parade of the Years,” page 8)
Then followed tableaux vivants performed by local residents who posed or moved as needed with a scripted voice over by a narrator. The scenes came from the stories Dothan told about its past: Creek Indians, the Indians leaving Alabama, arrival of white settlers to Poplar Head Springs, Dothan’s founding, the arrival of the railroad, early churches, the Dothan Riot of 1889, the Gay Nineties (a common Rogers episode with a local twist), and the founding of Houston County in 1903.
Episode 11 was “Dothan, Queen of the Wiregrass,” a narration-only interlude extolling Dothan’s industries, agriculture, and town life. Then came episode 12, “Festival of Peanuts” featuring enactment of peanut harvesting and processing.
Episodes 13 and 14 were typical of Rogers Company’s two-part finales. “Alabama – A Melting Pot” presented a parade of sixty children representing the US plus six European allies from World War I followed by 16 kids dressed as American sailors.
The grand finale was the Wheel of Life that ended every Rogers show. The entire cast arranged themselves into an enormous spoked wheel with the pageant queen at the hub. It was “symbolic of the splendid citizenship and the devotion that it has given to its ideals. The cast forms a human wheel of life. Vision of the future.” (“Parade of the Years,” page 13). This was accompanied by the band playing the Star-Spangled Banner followed by Taps.
The “Parade of the Years” went on for ninety minutes, three nights in a row, attended by hundreds who paid a quarter in advance or a half-dollar at the gate to see the myths of their town’s heritage made flesh. Alabamamagazine noted that 5000 people attended the play each night and that it “did Dothan’s colorful past up brown in the best John B. Rogers tradition.” (Alabama, page 9)
The sixteen-page program carried the usual array of advertisements and acknowledgments of the festival committees, but it also carried the entire script and the names of every cast member as well as the role(s) they played. The cover touted it as a souvenir program, and it certainly was.
The National Peanut Festival never repeated the community historical play but shifted to a consumer- and entertainment-based midway carnival after World War 2.
Alabama: The News Magazine of the Deep South, November 21, 1938.
The Dothan Eagle, various items, October 12 – November 8, 1938.
Glassberg, David. American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990. http://archive.org/details/americanhistoric0000davi
Hebert, Lou. “The Fostoria Company That Made History Come Alive.” The Toledo Gazette. February 26, 2020. https://toledogazette.wordpress.com/2020/02/26/the-fostoria-company-that-made-history-come-alive/
“Parade of the Years: An Historical Spectacle with 400 People.” Souvenir Program. National Peanut Festival, 1938.