In 1875, as the Christmas season approaches in the village of Manatee, the little town is all abuzz with talk of the coming annual festivities. Spreading about is a growing anticipation of a contest to win the hearts of ladies fair and test the horsemanship of the "Red Knight of Sparta," the "Knight of the Lone Palm," and the "Black Knight of Northumbria."
It sounds like the lore of medieval times -- of the chivalry, romance, and tradition of centuries before. However, this is the late 19th century in the Old South. Where is the connection?
In an attempt to restore antebellum gaiety to the difficult days of post-Civil War reconstruction, Southerners of the mid- to late 19th century transformed a serious, military and physically dangerous sport into a social event filled with gaiety, romance, good food and skilled horsemanship.
Communities gathered and held balls and other social events. Throughout the South, one popular diversion was the re-creation of a medieval jousting tournament and coronation ball. The village of Manatee and surrounding areas, including Tampa and Fort Myers, were no different.
Contestants and spectators came from Palmetto, Bradenton, Ellenton and Sarasota to the little village of Manatee. Crowds of up to 200 -- quite a lot for this area in those days -- would attend the highly anticipated events, which usually took place the day after Christmas.
Knights costumes were colorful and clever, including bright neckerchiefs and sashes -- each knight with his own colors and self-designed heraldry, shields made of painted pasteboard and lances that measured four "cloth-yards" long.
Steeds were typically "cow ponies" and participants would practice their skills for months in advance.
In an August 1947 interview, Jack Leffingwell
gave his recollection of the events that took place when he was only a young boy. He recalled: "Caused more heart fluttering and heartaches than the average modern girl has in a lifetime. It was more important than even baseball! Well for the ladies, at least."
The "Queen of Love and Beauty" was the title bestowed upon the romantic interest of the winning knight. Runners-up in the competition would crown their ladies "Maids of Honor."
The opening of the tournament was a nod to the chivalry of medieval times. In a palm frond-covered bower, constructed anew each year, the reigning queen of the previous tournament would preside over the ceremonies.
Each competitor would approach the grandstand on horseback -- tilting his lance toward his lady love -- in order for her to place one of her gloves on the end as a good luck gesture, with a wish he should win the tournament and crown her queen.
At the sound of the trumpets, the first knight began his charge from the far end of the field, which was about the length of a football field. Galloping upon his horse, the knight would tilt his lance to collect as many "gibbets" as he could. Gibbets were 3-inch iron rings wrapped in red flannel suspended from arched structures spaced at regular intervals down the field.
On each charge, a contestant would try to collect all three gibbets. After each contestant made his charge, he returned to the grandstand, lowered his lance, and slipped the rings off into the lap of his lady.
Each contestant followed in turn, making his three attempts to collect gibbets. After the scores were counted, the victor dismounted his horse, and led his lady to the Queen's Bower, where she was crowned. The crowd gave a hearty three cheers to the victor, and all of the attendees spent the afternoon enjoying a picnic in celebration.
The evening brought a special ball complete with music and all those in attendance wearing their finest.
The ball was presided over by the victor of the tournament and his Queen of Love and Beauty. Many years the dancing carried on until midnight.
In her book, "The Lures of Manatee," local author Lillie McDuffee, recounts the tournament of 1875 took place at the local landmark, Braden Castle, which was inhabited at the time by Gen. James G. Cooper and his wife, Pharaba, known as a charming hostess. The tournament festivities of the year appear to have been especially festive and fondly recalled.
The queen was crowned with red roses at the ball in the big east parlor of the castle.
McDuffee recounts: "Old settlers remember that while drinking was freely indulged in, the innate good mannerism of the Cooper household forbade ribaldry or rowdyism in any form under its roof."
The party was said to have lasted until dawn, as one reveler recalled the "the stars were pale in the sky when the dancing ceased."
However, in her later recollections, that year's Queen of Love and Beauty insists she was not among the dawn revelers.
Despite the difficulties of the Reconstruction era, this little village knew a thing or two about how to create an aura of romance, chivalry and tradition -- as these contests carried on through the turn of the 20th century.
Phaedra Rehorn, supervisor at Manatee Village Historical Park, 1404 Manatee Ave. E., Bradenton FL 34208, which is decorated in Victorian holiday splendor for a few days longer. We invite you to stop by and "Take a Step Back in Time!"