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Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014

Sixty years brings some changes but the thrills remain the same

Friday, September 24, 2004

(Photo)
The 60th annual Cotton Carnival is in full swing at the Jaycee Rodeo grounds.
SIKESTON -- Herb St. Mary doesn't shy away from letting first-time visitors to the American Legion Cotton Carnival know just how successful the annual event really is.

On Thursday, Derik Davis of Kansas City arrived at the Sikeston Jaycee Bootheel Rodeo grounds to set up his airbrush paint stand for the remaining days of the cotton carnival.

As St. Mary, carnival grounds chairman, showed Davis to his designated spot, St. Mary briefed him about the annual event: "We have the largest parade in Missouri -- over 200 units," said St. Mary.

Like most volunteers of the American Legion's annual Cotton Carnival, St. Mary is proud of that fact. For it's their hard work and time that has transformed the Cotton Carnival into one of the area's largest annual events.

St. Mary, who is also the fish trailer chairman, has volunteered at the event for over 20 years, he estimated. But the carnival itself has been around for 60 years, and along that time, experienced many changes.

"When we first started it was held downtown, but then it got to the point where it was too crowded," St. Mary recalled. The event was moved to the Riverbirch Mall for three years then to the Rodeo grounds, where it has been for the past four years.

"It started and just got to growing," recalled Roscoe Vaughan, who began volunteering with the event in 1950 and retired from it a few years ago.

"When we first started out, stands and tents were set up in the streets, and we blocked off New Madrid and Front streets," Vaughan said.

And the now-defunct Queen's Ball used to be the event of the year, Vaughan recalled.

"We'd rent out the Armory because the American Legion was too small. It was a big deal," Vaughan said.

Geniece Kinder, Cotton Carnival program book chairwoman, noted several traditions of the carnival have been broken over the past years in addition to the location of the event.

"I used to run from Monday through Saturday and then changed to Tuesday through Saturday," Kinder pointed out. "This year, due to conflict with a Stoddard County fair, it's being held Wednesday through Saturday."

Up until six years ago, the children's pageant was called Mister and Miss Cotton Top. Because it was limited to only blonde-haired children, the pageant name was changed to Mr. and Miss Cotton Carnival so all children could enter, Kinder explained.

And this year, the Sikeston R-6 schools requested the Miss Sikeston Contest be changed to Saturday night instead of Friday night.

"Generally, Miss Sikeston rides in the parade Saturday morning, and she'll be riding this year -- we just won't know which one is Miss Sikeston," Kinder said, adding the entire Miss Sikeston court has the option to ride in the parade. More noticeable changes from year to year for American Legion members are the absence of some familiar faces. American Legion members Glen Bond, Bob King, L.E. King and Leslie "Mac" McElrath all died this year, and Kinder said they've definitely noticed the void.

"We've lost a lot of good help," St. Mary said.

And some traditions haven't changed -- like the ever-popular American Legion fish stand.

"We always have people say, 'I've waited all year for this,' and 'I can't wait for the fish sandwiches'," Kinder said. When the American Legion first started the fish stand, members used carp and buffalo fillets and grilled them on a hamburger grill, Vaughan said. Then in 1960, they started cooking the square (fish).

"We bought the carp and buffalo from a fish market out of Memphis, Tenn., and the fish came out of the Mississippi River," Vaughan explained. "But then the Mississippi River became so contaminated, and we couldn't serve it anymore so we went to the squares."

And of course, family remains a tradition of the carnival, "Parents can drop their kids off and not have to worry," St. Mary said. "It's a safer atmosphere. We have all kinds of police protection."

But the fate of the Cotton Carnival thriving for another 60 years is debatable, St. Mary said.

He said: "We're getting old, and we don't have a lot young people who volunteer."