140 years of May Queens in Mendon
MENDON -- It was time. All the girls had been assembled and their names had been written on small slips of paper. Excitement filled the room. The girls conversed among themselves, waiting in anticipation for the event that brought them all together -- the selection of this year's May Queen.
The chatter died down as last year's queen, Heidi Bowen, walked to the front of the room. Bowen placed her hand in the bowl, withdrew a slip, unfolded it, and the queen was chosen: Petersboro resident Lisa Ferrara.
"I never thought it would happen to me," she said. "I was kind of in shock, but then I got really excited."
Ferrara is the 140th queen of Mendon's annual May Day celebration, a tradition the city has been carrying on since 1863. The event hasn't changed much during that time and includes most of the same activities enjoyed back when the tradition was first begun: a Maypole dance performed by the town's young girls, games for both children and adults, a dance, and a program with various entertainment and musical numbers. And, of course, the crowning of the new queen.
The selection of the May Queen is the highlight event both during and prior to the celebration. The process begins about a month before the drawing when notices are sent out to all the eleventh grade girls living in the Mendon area. Those wishing to participate are entered in the lottery that determines who gets to be queen.
"I like it this way because it gives every girl a fair chance," Ferrara said.
While Ferrara was chosen literally by the luck of the draw, the May Queen was not always selected in a random drawing. In the beginning of May Day's history, the Sunday School of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ran the celebration and the superintendent usually chose the queen.
Rod Sorensen, a Mendon resident considered to be the unofficial May Day historian, said his grandfather, Thomas Kay Sorensen, served as superintendent for years and selected many May Queens during that time.
"[My grandfather] said he'd 'look 'em in the eye and find the one that was right,'" Sorensen said.
The hand-picked selection process was abolished after Mendon City took over the celebration in 1986. Since that time, all female high school juniors wishing to participate have had equal opportunity to obtain the honor.
Regardless of how she's chosen, the queen is the center of Mendon's May Day celebration. The day begins with the queen leading her court in a march from Mendon Station, around the corner of town square to the gazebo where the grand entry and seating of the court occurs. After following the customary ritual, the May Queen is crowned and then reigns over the rest of the celebration. Everything revolves around her and Sorensen said "the queen has all power and prestige."
The May Queen has a number of responsibilities in connection with May Day. Soon after she learns she's been chosen, one of her main tasks is to choose her consort from the boys in her corresponding age group. The other girls in the court also select escorts for the event. If by chance there are more girls than boys, or vice versa, individuals from the older age group are asked to fill in.
"[Extras] are always the kids a year older, never younger," said Sorensen. "It's kind of like a rite of passage. You've become an adult after you've been through May Day."
Geneil Hughes, the 1945 queen who now lives in Logan, said back in her day most queens chose their consorts based on "who [they] had a fancy for," but for her it was more of a height issue.
"I was a tall girl for my age," Hughes said. "I chose who I thought was tall enough." Alvin Kidman, a brother of one of her classmates, was the lucky winner.
For Ferrara, choosing her consort was determined by who she thought would recite the traditional crowning speech, which, along with accompanying the queen, is the consort's primary duty. Her choice was Tyler Hill.
"I saw him a lot growing up although I don't really know him that well," said Ferrara. "I thought he'd be willing to say the poem so I asked him and he said yes."
The May Queen is also responsible for selecting a flower girl and crown-bearer, in addition to making her own crown. Ferrara had a family friend make hers, which is mainly purple with violets to match her dress.
Hughes said it used to be that the queen would find wildflowers to adorn hercrown, but when she was queen, artificial flowers were just coming out. Her sister helped her make the crown with white daisies and pink sweet peas made of silk. Hughes still has the crown, which she keeps safely tucked away in a flat, brown box.
The dress she wore is a different story.
"I don't even know where it is now," she said. "I wore my sister's blue, hand-me-down prom dress. Money wasn't plentiful back then. You couldn't afford the expense of both a new dress and the dinner."
The dinner she referred to is one of the few queen's traditions that have changed slightly over the years. Hughes said one of her duties as May Queen was for her and her family to put on a dinner for the whole court the night before the celebration.
Ferrara said now the city council takes the court out to dinner, but the queen is responsible for helping set up the dance that follows later that evening. She is also in charge of getting all the flowers for her court and the basket for the flower girl.
May Day's history is full of stories that testify of the importance and influence of the queen. Although Sorensen doesn't know the specific date or queen, he said one year the May Queen had appendicitis. Rather than resort to one of her alternates, the city waited until she was healed before proceeding with the celebration. Alternates to the queen are always chosen but have never been used in all the history of the event.
Another incident occurred in 1945 when Hughes was queen and it snowed the night before May Day. The next morning Hughes refused to follow the traditional procession route through the middle of the block because she didn't want to walk through the wet grass. So she didn't. She led the procession on another route.
"People were waiting [on the original route] to take pictures and things but I took us the other way," she said with a laugh. "They were so mad at me."
Tradition may be strong, but stories like these illustrate that things don't always happen as they're supposed to.
In 1906 when long-time Mendon resident Magnus Larsen passed away on the morning of May Day, the celebration was postponed. Olive Sorensen Hughes was May Queen that year. In her life history, written by her in 1958, she recorded how she felt about the unexpected incident:
"At the age of twelve I was chosen Queen of the May. My sister made my dress. What a beautiful thing it was. White organdie with ruffles, trimmed with lace and insertion. May Day dawned. How excited I was. Then came the biggest disappointment of my life. An old pioneer lady passed away that morning. In respect for her, the celebration was called off. It was postponed until a later date, but the day was spoiled for me."
The May Queens of both past and present don't take their title lightly, and it is an honor they value.
"I can't tell you what a thrill it is," said Hughes. "It was a real honor. You just felt so proud and smart."
Ferrara echoes her remarks.
"It's really cool," she said. "I'm totally looking forward to it."
Both Ferrara and Hughes have great respect for the May Day celebration as a whole and acknowledge it to be a big part of their community.
"I think May Day is really cool because it's gone on for so long," said Ferrara. "Everyone's still excited about keeping the tradition going. The older people especially thrive off it. They love it. They're really into the history of it all. It's a big part of them."
Hughes said it is a unique celebration in this area because no other town in Cache Valley celebrates May Day.
"It's something you look forward to," she said. "From the time I first danced the Maypole to years later when I took my children and went back. I love to go when I can."
A complete listing of all the Mendon May Queens and more information about the event can be viewed on Mendon City's official Web site at http://www.pcu.net/web/mendon/mendon_utah_may_day.htm