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Memories of ‘May Day’ revived through Wharton’s films

by Denise DeVries

James Wharton filmed a variety of activities throughout the Northern Neck in the 1920s and 1930s. This included the crowning of a queen at a May Day celebration.

Historical accounts indicate that colonists to the New World brought with them the tradition of the May pole dance, which continues in the U.K. today. In fact, a 1780 record showed that Kilmarnock Council, in what is now East Ayrshire, Scotland, “paid Robert Fraser 2s. 6d. for dressing a Maypole,” according to James Paterson, author of “History of the Counties of Ayr and Wigton.”

Time magazine reported that Thomas Morton, member of a trading expedition, began May Day celebrations in 1624 in the New England colony. Unfortunately, his Puritan neighbors objected to the appearance of the pole, the “barrel! of excellent beare,” and the loud singing of the young men.

May Day in the Northern Neck was a more family-friendly holiday, organized through the schools. According to the Rappahannock Record of May 2, 1935, the Ottoman School combined May Day with Field Day at its new facilities, featuring “a baseball game between Ottoman and White Stone” and followed by the procession of the May Court, led by the May Queen. Supper and refreshments were served and a drama “Aaron Slick from Pankin Crick” was presented in the evening.

On April 30, 1936, the Record announced Wicomico High School’s May Day “with boys and girls baseball and other attractions in the afternoon followed by supper and a drama at night.” In 1938, the Wicomico May Day also included a fashion show by Home Economics students from several schools in Northumberland and Lancaster counties, who “modeled dresses, suits, play suits and smocks.”

The Rappahannock Record of May 5, 1938, notes that Peggy George (Mrs. Edward J. Davis) was the May Queen for grades 1-4 at White Stone School and Joan Somers and Peggy Efford were attendants. The article reported, “the grade girls are practicing for the May Pole Dance which they will present.” The dancers, holding colorful ribbons attached to the top of the pole, would weave among each other until the pole was wrapped in the braided ribbons.

Mrs. Davis, who sings in her church choir, enjoyed the May Day songs. Practices took place outside the school “as soon as it was warm enough in April.” May first was a school holiday and the celebrations lasted all day, with food concessions run by ladies from various churches and some type of musical event in the evening. The Lancaster County event took place at White Stone School and Heathsville hosted Northumberland’s May Day, said Davis.

Davis recognized her teacher, Olivia Carter, in a recent Rappahannock Record photo. Carter was a member of the May Court filmed by John Wharton.

Davis shared vivid memories of the last May Day celebration at Kilmarnock School in 1946. “All of the girls got new white shorts and white tennis shoes. At school, they changed into long ruffled organdy dresses.” They carried bouquets of spring flowers. “School Street was a clay road then,” she said. “We went out under a black sky and there was a terrible storm.” Everyone was soaked and “the older ladies were wearing black rayon dresses that shrank in the rain, showing their slips,” she recalls. May Queen Tillie Barrack and her attendants, Joan Somers and Davis, were walking in “yellow clay mud up to our knees.” There were no pictures taken that day, she added.

Screenings and photos at the Rappahannock Art League Studio Gallery throughout the month of May are intended to bring out even more memories of the Northern Neck. The community is invited to meet with members of the film project crew on Saturdays in May to share anecdotes, photos and memories.

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