On the Gulf Coast, there are two things we take almost as seriously as religion. The first is college football. Don’t trash talk our team or even remotely joke about adjusting or cancelling the season. (Some of us still aren’t over 2020.)
The second is Mardi Gras. The annual celebration marked by parades, live music, food tastings, and every sort of glorious excess and indulgence you can imagine is truly a deep Southern tradition. Despite what most Americans think, New Orleans didn’t invent the holiday, just the hoopla. We might all have a little purple and gold coursing through our veins, as longtime Mobilians know this is where it all began, right here in the heart and soul of Mob-Town.
In fact, it started in 1699 when French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville happened upon a little-known spot along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Being an explorer, he realized he better give the place a proper name. (Thankfully it was a name shorter than his own.) And that’s how Pointe Du Mardi Gras was born. Oh, pardon my French. That’s “Shrove Tuesday Tip” for the rest of you. Bienville would later establish present-day Mobile and New Orleans.
By 1703, the first coordinated Mardi Gras was held in the city of Mobile and voilà: Annual celebrations became more common than a string of Alexander Shunnarah billboards. The rest, as they say, is indeed history. Sadly, there won’t be much in the way of festivities this year due to COVID-19 concerns, forcing former revelers and partakers to remember the glory days of yesteryear. And remember them they shall.
One group that seems content to do just that are the former citizens of RV City, the aptly named campground once located under Interstate 10 in downtown Mobile. The iconic site served as an annual home to 200-plus trailers and RVs. For over a decade, campers from across the U.S. would descend upon this singular location during Mardi Gras — having reserved their spots weeks or months in advance.
“My husband Ike and I started and managed RV City for 18 years,” says Peggy Jimenez, 67, now retired. “Ike was considered the unofficial mayor, and he wanted to retire several years ago, but things grew so rapidly and it became very popular. For the first 10 years, we handled everything ourselves since we were in construction. We did all the labor for free and even used our own construction equipment.” Eventually, staffing— and liability— required this grassroots efforts to cease for good.
RV City may be a distant memory now, but it’s a fond one for many who camped out to enjoy all that Mobile Mardi Gras had to offer. This is particularly true for Peggy who recalls the cheerful ambiance and family-friendly atmosphere.
“There were lots of families and friends, parties and cooking, even a lot of folks with elderly parents. The whole thing was very family-oriented every year. Everyone would get into squares, and they would do barbecue pits. There would even be music and DJs.” Homeland Security, however, became concerned with the potential for fire and other hazards under an Interstate, and the good times could no longer roll.
So, with Mardi Gras as absent as Chick-Fil-A on a Sunday, MB thought it only appropriate to ask a few RV City nomads to pull up a chair, sit a spell and share some of their favorite memories of this unique world-within-a-world.
Sam & Cindy Eubanks
• RV or Camper Make & Model: 2004 Class A Country Coach
• Number of states visited: All 50 separately; all but five as a couple
• Current location: Outside Loxley
• Originally from: South Carolina (Sam); Wisconsin (Cindy)
• Total mileage covered: Over 300,000 miles
There may be no one who will miss the traditions of RV City during Mardi Gras more than 66-year-old travel enthusiast Sam Eubanks. Along with his wife Cindy, 61, the two have been part of the renowned campground since its earliest inception.
“We were in the original bunch when it first started,” he says, a tinge of sad remembrance in his voice. “We would be in little quads, usually four families each. It was so nice because the circle I was in was all family. I had a spot, my son had a spot, then some friends of ours and their son. It was a month of good food and good friends. We saw a lot of people come and go over the years, so we got to know everyone. We would always look forward to going every year for the camaraderie and getting to see the people from previous years who we knew. It was a lot of good, good times. It’s a shame the city doesn’t want to take it over because they could actually make some money on it.”
It may have been the best of times, but it could occasionally be the strangest of times.
“One year a semi overturned on I-10 and dumped about 80,000 pounds of avocados all over the campers,” recalls Eubanks with a chuckle. “He was on the overpass and just flipped and spilled his cargo. That was pretty crazy.”
Here’s to hoping that any future Mardi Gras celebrations don’t involve human guacamole.
Debbi and Tom Killeen
• RV or Camper Make & Model: 2014 Salem 26-foot tow-behind; just recently purchased a fifth-wheel camper
• Number of states visited: One — Alabama
• Originally from: Upstate New York
• Total mileage covered: Couple hundred miles, mostly between Dauphin Island and RV City
Just because you’re from the North doesn’t mean you can’t let the good times roll during Mardi Gras in the South! Hailing from upstate New York, Tom and Debbi, both 66, have lived in Mobile since 1997.
“We were a part of RV City for about four years,” recalls Debbi. “My husband had a cousin who would come down from Long Island every year for Mardi Gras and now he likes Alabama so much that he wants to live here!”
Debbie says some of her favorite things about the legendary campground were the festivities and how easy it was to get around.
“There was always a party at the beginning. That was great. And we had a golf cart [which were also available for rent] so we were able to attend all the parades and get to our favorite spots. We got invited to several different things while people were grilling, and all of the kids throughout the campground had so much fun. We had one set of friends who got a spot in front of the Civic Center, and we would play cornhole with them and grill out there. We love Mobile and all it has to offer and would love to see RV City return one day. That would just be perfect.”
Lynn & Dennis Chance
• RV or Camper Make & Model: 2017 30-foot fifth-wheel Hemisphere
• Number of states visited: Eight
• Current location: Grand Bay
• Originally from: Mobile
• Total mileage covered: Several hundreds of thousands
They say experience makes all the difference, and this couldn’t be more true for the Chances, who were camping in the RV City area long before Peggy and Ike ever came along.
“We were there back when it was free,” says Lynn, 77, who’s been camping with her husband Dennis, 62, for over 25 years now. “We would camp out in that area under the interstate on the left-hand side. It was kind of first come, first serve, but there were so many folks. Once Ike and Peggy took over, it was managed so well. They would send out emails and keep everyone well-informed. There was never any question about where you had to be or when you had to be there. It was all coordinated down to the last detail. We’re going to miss Ike and Peggy for sure. They were the keepers of the keys.”
Like many of their fellow campers, the Chances embraced the family camaraderie that made RV City a beloved trademark of Mardi Gras.
“It was almost like a homecoming in a lot of ways,” Lynn says. “People who you wouldn’t see all year long, you would see at RV City and you would spend three weeks together. We would all visit and enjoy one another’s company and then load up and go to the parades. Everyone looked out for everyone, and I liked that. We never had anything stolen down there. Using the golf carts was a plus because we could ride them to the parades and not have to walk in the freezing cold. I remember making those golf cart trips many a night in the cold with the wind blowing. But it made you more mobile, and it was easier to get to the venues and eat at the restaurants.”
• RV or Camper Make and Model: Class C Four Winds
• Number of States Visited: Three — Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana
• Current Location: Hollingers Island
• Originally From: Hollingers Island
• Total mileage covered: At least 20,000
Let it never be said that students have all the fun! Serving as a professor at Bishop State University for over 20 years, 46-year-old Sarah Jurenka has been a part of RV City for 13 years and passionately describes it as “the camping experience of the year.”
“I think one of the best things about it is that everyone looks out for everyone else and shares with one another. Somebody will say, ‘Hey, I’m bringing some water tomorrow. Do you need some?’ Everyone is looking out for their neighbor. The world could really take a lesson from RV City. One year I had a water leak, and some kind folks let me borrow some tools and just said ‘Put ‘em back under the mat when you’re done.’”
Beyond the friendly fellowship, Sarah recalls some of the pleasant memories associated with her time there.
“One year we put on an RV City parade with all the golf carts,” she says with a smile. “We did it on a Saturday when there were no real parades. We had throws and even decorated our carts and played music. That was a great memory. We would also do a lot of crawfish boils on Saturdays when there weren’t any parades. I always brought masks, crayons and new markers for the kids. I even have a box for this year. I can remember having 10 – 15 kids sitting around picnic tables designing their own masks. We would give them beads and let them all walk around together.”
Speaking of kids, it quickly became apparent that Sarah’s daughter was born with her mother’s natural enthusiasm for Mardi Gras.
“My daughter was in K-4, and I got a call from her teacher once,” she recalls. “She told me that she had been teaching the seasons to the class. She said, ‘Your daughter argued that Mobile only has three seasons: boating season, football season and Mardi Gras.’”
Sarah couldn’t have been more proud.
From an outsider’s perspective, RV City may have appeared to be nothing more than a glorified trailer park that sprang up once a year. But to those with veteran status, deep-rooted citizenship, and a burning love for all things Mardi Gras, it was, and still is, so much more. It was a lifestyle, a community and a tradition all its own. It was a family. And that will forever be the greatest memory of all.