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May Fete

By Frank Chamberlain

The May Fete was an annual pageant at Tarleton that was included as part of the Parent’s Day festivities. Margaret Bierschwale organized this formal celebration in 1921. It and featured dozens of girls competing for the title of “May Queen.” Each year, the May Fete was held with a different and colorful theme. The participants wore costumes and performed ceremonious dance routines in keeping with the theme of the festival (King 167-168).

The first May Fete contained many elements that would characterize subsequent events. This ceremony was held in Handy’s Park, located near the campus. Future Fetes were held on a variety of spacious locations such as the football field, drill field, or Hunewell Park. Physical education teacher Laura Fellman directed these early exhibitions. A wildflower motif served as the theme for the original Fete. The participating ladies wore formal apparel accented by plenty of colorful floral accessories. The program began with a processional and featured dance sequences. The performers were elaborately costumed non-contestants whose roles and routines varied with the theme of that year’s celebration. It was customary for the players to portray such assorted characters as jesters, animals, fairies, and either mythical or historical figures. The master of ceremonies was usually a fictitious character named “Lord Tarleton.” A central event in the Fete was the traditional May Day ceremony of wrapping the “May Pole.” In this procedure a team of dancers moved in a synchronized manner while winding ribbons around a central post (King 167-168).

A committee of five students and five faculty members chose the winner of the pageant. The criteria for being selected included such qualities as beauty, poise, personality, and posture. Being pleasing to the eye was not the only prerequisite for success because the winner also had to have been a student in good academic standing. After the group had determined the winner, the contest director and lucky participant were informed of the results in advance. (Meanwhile, the winner could go about the business of procuring a dress.) The results were kept secret until the coronation, and the queen-elect had to refrain from boasting about her newfound honor. The May Queens were immortalized by being given a full-page photograph in the Tarleton Grassburr (King 169).

A Texas Centennial celebration was held in 1936 instead of the traditional May Fete. This all-day event featured a speech by Texas Governor James V. Allred, who flew to Stephenville for the occasion. The day of festivities was capped off by an enormous pageant composed of a seven-act theatrical reenactment of Texas history under each of its six flags. The seventh and final act portrayed life in the current state, as “Princess Texas” gloriously emerged from the trials and tribulations of the past and married “Prince Renown”. The production involved 235 student actors and dancers and 200 musical contributors. Mathematics professor May Jones directed the event and was assisted by a forty-member faculty committee. This massive program was held on Hays Field, transforming the playing surface into a gigantic stage. The backdrop for the proceedings was divided into six 12 by 20 foot sections. Each of these units illustrated Texan life under each flag. An estimated audience of over a thousand spectators attended the event, including Governor Allred and the Texas A&M Board of Directors (King 185-187, Stephenville Empire-Tribune 5/15/36).

King, C. Richard. The John Tarleton College Story: Golden Days of Purple and White. Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1998.

“Centennial Pageant at College Saturday Night to be Colorful Affair”, Stephenville Empire-Tribune, May 15, 1936.