The first Grand Rapids Carnival of Fun was held in October 1897 and organized by the Hesperus Club. Modeled after the “Carnival of Rome,” Grand Rapids’ carnival was a four-day festival of parades, music, Midway acts and games, and the election of Carnival King and Queen. Advertisements and souvenirs featured images of leprechauns, devils, jesters, and people in fanciful costumes.
At a meeting of the Hesperus Club in November 1897, heated debate arose about the worth and morality of the recently concluded festivities. It was reported in the Grand Rapids Herald that during the 4 days of the carnival there were 61 arrests for drunkenness, compared to 8 from the preceding week and 10 for the following week. Such public displays of “immorality and degradation” were met with furious opposition from a number of the city’s prominent businessmen and ministers, including Gen. Byron M. Cutcheon, the very founder of the Hesperus Club itself.
However, since the carnival’s events and attractions brought a great financial boost to the city, Grand Rapids’ Mayor, Lathrop C. Stow, declared that the city was none the worse for having held it. The following summer the organizers petitioned the city once again to repeat the Carnival of Fun. The new mayor, George R. Perry, citing “no law to prevent” the holding of the carnival, granted permission for its use of public streets once again.
The 1898 Carnival of Fun was nearly twice as large as the previous year. It held opening ceremonies, three parades, free shows on four stages, fireworks, Midway games, food stands, and more. Local businesses even ran special carnival sales to attract both locals and out-of-towners.
Following the rousing “hot time” of the 1898 Carnival of Fun, a conference of ministers gathered to oppose the “immorality and drunkenness” of the carnival. The conference demanded that the carnival never be repeated, noting that arrests for public drunkenness increased threefold from the first year to the second. They vowed to fight any future proposals of carnivals with all of the weapons at their disposal. Their efforts were victorious, and the Grand Rapids Carnival of Fun was never held again.
Items featured in this post, along with others, can be found in the Grand Rapids Carnival of Fun collection (RHC-170), in the GVSU Special Collections and University Archives.