St. Petersburg’s journey from provincial town to bustling metropolis can be measured in the story of the Festival of States.
What started in 1896 as a children’s celebration of George Washington’s birthday turned into a two-week civic festival, always in April, capped off by a parade that at its peak in the 1970s and ‘80s included marching bands from just about every state in the union. Tens of thousands lined the parade route, up Bayshore Drive from the Vinoy, then west on Central Avenue to 16th Street.
The Festival of States was so named in 1917, when St. Petersburg was a wintering ground for northerners. They tended to arrive in December and stay through March or so, when the weather was warming up back at home.
“What it really was, was a chance for us to extend the season a little bit longer,” explains Chris Steinocher, President and CEO of the St Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. “To keep those northern dollars down in St. Pete for two more weeks. Try to keep those hotels filled, because it really made a big difference.”
Residents of each state tended to gather in tight social groups, so city government and business leaders made appeals: Create a float for your state – and any sort of decorated rolling thing constituted a float – and be a part of our parade.
“It was all about commerce,” says Steinocher, “but it gave so many people a taste of St. Pete so that they ended up coming back and living here too. It whet people’s whistles so the good ones stayed, and the other ones just left their money.”
Although the culminating “Parade of States” was always the big event – in 1923, there were nine marching bands and 114 floats – the Chamber of Commerce tried a variety of companion pieces, including carnivals, light opera and theater, games, concerts, flower shows, historical re-enactments, lawn bowling contests, animal shows, boat shows, waterski shows, shuffleboard tournaments, the World’s Largest Card Party.
The “Coronation Ball,” in which a “Sun Queen” was named, began in 1935 (eventually, the crowing of a “Mr. Sun” became part of the party, too).
The festival was put on ice during World War II.
In the mid ‘50s, a group of local business people formed an all-volunteer group to take the reins. They called themselves the Suncoasters, and they could always be spotted at Festival of States events in their shiny yellow sports jackets.
“Early on, it was a community effort, with a couple of retired guys who had time on their hands,” remembers former Suncoaster Joe Lettelleir. “And then they hired an executive director and got organized.
“There were committees – a parade committee, a security committee, a hospitality committee … you got on a committee depending on your wishes, or who you knew in the hierarchy, and you worked on different things, from the Kids’ Parade to the Clown Alley.”
Although the city kicked in a stipend, it was up to the Suncoasters to secure enough sponsorship dollars, and contributions, to make the Festival of States hum like a well-oiled marching band machine.
As a volunteer, “You had to be civically involved, and working for a company that would allow you that time off,” Lettelleir says. “And of course they were happy to have you do it; you were representing them.”
In 1973, the National Civic League named St. Petersburg an “All-America City.” This prestigious designation was trumpeted by the St. Petersburg Times, which every spring published a Festival of States special edition.
Former Councilmember Barbara Gammon was quoted: “It is entirely fitting that the young people who come here to show off their musical talent, resplendent uniforms and marching ability demonstrate what our All-America City entry showed, that people can work together in achieving a common goal for the good of all.”
In this same section was an editorial, under the headline We Think We Are the Greatest, But We Know We Have Problems:
We’re not proud of our ghetto, for instance. If you live in a decaying northern city, our ghetto wouldn’t impress you as all that bad, perhaps, nothing like you’ve seen in New York or Chicago or Detroit, or Cleveland. But there is still substandard housing near the heart of our city … despite this, the voters turned down a Public Housing Referendum last month.
The bigger St. Pete got, the less relevant the Festival of States became.
“For a long time, the banks were all local, and they were happy to be a sponsor,” says Lettelleir, who left the Suncoasters in the mid 1980s. “Then there came a time when the banking decisions were all made out of Atlanta and Charlotte and Jacksonville. So you didn’t get the commitment.”
When family-owned business were the norm, he adds, “It was the big civic event, and everybody had a stake in it one way or another, from street vendors to balloon salesmen to everything else. And a lot of things changed.”
Cable TV, home video, the internet, cell phones and the arrival of the Tampa Bay Rays all made standing around in the springtime sun watching floats and high school bands parade down the asphalt seem somehow quaint, as archaic as the celebrity dinner theaters that thrived in St. Pete in the 1970s, and died out completely by the end of the next decade.
With far less support from area businesses, dwindling attendance and the arrival of the St. Petersburg Grand Prix, which turned downtown upside down, the Suncoasters retired the Festival of States parade in 2014. The group itself disbanded four years later.
Steinocher, a longtime resident of St. Pete, remembers the sense of civic pride that came with each April’s iteration of the Festival of States. “It was not a government-funded thing,” he says, “it was the community going ‘Hey, let’s put on a show so these people will come back next year. It was another one of those personal commitments to leave them wanting more of us.
“That’s what I was impressed by. It was a personal thing to show people how cool St. Pete really was.”