Long-time Fourth Ward resident, Larry Lewis, knows something special about Mardi Gras history in Bay St. Louis. The Bay St. Louis parade drew people from several counties and parishes, all to see the special attraction—the marching of the Moss Men. Larry was born in 1950; five years later he costumed and marched for the first time in a parade. Nearly every year hence he has joined the revelry.
Larry, who has lived at the same location on Ballentine Street for forty years, can still tell you the name of just about everybody who lived (or still lives) in his neighborhood. Many are family—aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, nieces and nephews. Especially before Hurricane Katrina virtually destroyed every house on Ballentine Street from the beach to Third Street, three or four families lived in homes close to one another, and if you weren’t family, you were friend.
Larry credits his uncle, Slim Banks for starting the Mardi Gras in Bay St. Louis around 1955. Slim came from New Orleans and started everybody dressing up as Mardi Gras Indians, following the tradition already going strong in New Orleans.
Three tribes—the Krewe of Alley (or Alley Cats), the Back of Town Tribe and the Uptown Tribe--would all get together on Mardi Gras, helping each other with their elaborate hand-made costumes, adding more colorful feathers to the crown or sewing on more glittery beads.
Costuming as Indians got to be bigger and bigger each year and the Alley Cats decided they wanted to do something to look different. “So we started being the Moss Men,” Larry explains.
What do Moss Men look like? “Something like a gorilla suit,” says Larry. Moss Men made their own costumes by twining tie wire through numerous slices cut about every six inches into the fabric of a shirt—usually an old sweatshirt served best. Blue jeans made the best below the waist part of the costume. Once the moss had been attached, with tie wire, it was painted. “Red, black, white, yellow, orange, pink, whatever colors we came across. We didn’t care” Larry recalls with a smile. “When we paraded, sometimes the moss would flip around to the gray side when a wind was blowing.”
Moss Men pulled out old Halloween masks to complete the costume. If you didn’t have a mask, people made up a black crème for their faces, fashioned from chimney soot mixed with lard.
The Moss Men started parading from “the alley” (the semicircle off Ballentine Street now named Cue Street) to Third Street, pass St. Rose de Lima to Main Street. They eventually ended up at “Back of Town” via Sycamore Street to St. Francis, although the exact route may be modified from year to year. Along the way, the marchers threw beads and candy to the onlookers. Though called the Moss Men, it was not unusual for woman to participate, dressed in costumes made of moss, varying from the men by wearing moss-covered skirts rather than jeans.
Larry credits Clara Mae Darcy and Charlie Murrey as the generators who kept the Moss Man tradition going year after year. Ms. Darcy lived on St. John Street, not far from the cemetery. It was in her yard surrounding her house that parade participants met before the marching started, often using her place for getting costumed.
For now, the Moss Men have disbanded, though some may participate in the Mardi Gras parade in Bay St. Louis put on by the Krewe of Diamonds.
Larry Lewis is married to Elmira Jackson Lewis and together they have raised three girls and one boy during their 22 years of marriage: Amelia (the eldest), Larry, Jr., Jeanene and Amber, still “the baby girl” to Larry. Larry’s father, Arthur Lewis passed away in 2006. “Don’t mourn for me,” he told his children. “I had a good life.”
Like his father, Larry lives his life to the fullest. He has worked for the City of Bay St. Louis for over 37 years, presently as a supervisor in the drainage department. He sings in a four-member gospel group, the “Angels of Joy.” He sings for the love of it, traveling to churches and participating often in three-day retreats. Though he also loved to play the saxophone, an injury to his mouth some time ago has prevented him from playing more than an hour or so every now and then. And, he sheepishly admits, Elmira doesn’t encourage him. She likes it better when he keeps the sax in the closet.
When asked his secret of growing things successfully, Larry didn’t skip a beat. “The main ingredient—say a prayer for it and pray for it to bear fruit.”
Larry and Elmira have seven grandchildren and one great grandchild. Happily, Larry’s mother, Lena Mae Lewis, is still living. Larry proudly says that now there are living five generations of his family.
Wearing a shirt emblazoned with “I LOVE BAY ST. LOUIS,” Larry really means it. “People here get along real good. There’s a lot of hospitality. People have love in their hearts. I’m not going anywhere,” he says with a grin.