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Sunday Favorites: The First DeSoto Pageant


1939 marked the 400th anniversary of Hernando De Soto's arrival on the Manatee River. To honor this milestone, the Bradenton Chamber of Commerce organized a pageant and a subsequent parade. Around that time, the U.S. Congress established a special commission to pinpoint the location of the historic conquistador's landing, ultimately selecting the mouth of the Manatee River as the designated spot. As a result, the Bradenton Chamber of Commerce opted to turn this commemoration into an annual celebration, according to the research paper “A Time for Royalty” by Nan Russell.

The festival was to be a week-long event that began by recreating De Soto’s landing on the shore, followed by a grand parade of floats, and culminating in the crowning of a queen. The gimmick was originally intended to attract tourists from all over the state and allow civic leadership their 15 minutes in the spotlight.

A parade float for an unidentified airline company at Manatee High School's Hawkins Stadium during the DeSoto Grand Parade.
A parade float for an unidentified airline company at Manatee High School's Hawkins Stadium during the DeSoto Grand Parade.

The first De Soto pageant began in February of 1941, with women vying for the opportunity to be crowned queen. Bradenton aimed high when it came to the committee, securing Florida Governor Spessard L. Holland as its honorary chairman.

The crowning of the queen was decided on by the community. As a method of selecting the queen, tickets were sold in the name of each contestant. There were different types of tickets with varying numbers of votes. For instance, a ticket of admission to the Queen's Ball entitled the holder to 225 votes. Local newspapers reported weekly on the standings. In addition to the Queen, who received the most votes, runners-up included "Miss America" and "Miss South", "Miss East", "Miss 'West", and "Miss North".

The festivities kicked off on Wednesday, Feb. 19, at 12:30 p.m. with the captivating reenactment of De Soto's Landing at Shaw's Point, now the Desoto National Memorial. Bradenton Policeman Bill Sheetz made a dramatic entrance onto the shoreline, clad not in battle armor. Not his usual bulletproof vest but authentic 16th-century costume armor, channeling the spirit of Hernando De Soto. Surrounding him, Spanish soldiers donned vibrant red, gold, and green attire, adding flair to the reenactment. Interestingly, unlike the Crewe of today, the original conquistadors were all women!

By 2 p.m. the parade of floats had commenced, starting at the Manatee Avenue bridge to the Post Office (south of Sixth Avenue) and disbanding at the Hotel Dixie Grande. By 8 p.m. crowds gathered at the Bradenton High School stadium for the crowning of the queen.

Hundreds of onlookers cheered as Carl D. Broreim, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, crowned Miss Elizabeth Jane Dye, daughter of Senator and Mrs. Dewey A. Dye was crowned queen. Elizabeth looked regal in a long white dress with a white satin cape and red trimmings. She was a graduate of Bradenton High School and attended Stetson University and Brenau College. Runner-up for "Miss America" was Mickey Doody representing the Bradenton Trailer Park.

Finally, at 10 p.m. that evening, a ball was held at the Bradenton Country Club that showcased Hernando De Soto’s expedition, as well as the history of Manatee County.

The entire community embraced the first De Soto Festival. The town came together, turning it into a significant event where everyone got into the spirit of the celebration. The entire town adopted a "Spanish" theme for the week, with round-brimmed red hats adorned with black braids being sold all over for $5. Those who didn't participate risked a stint in the "slap-in-jail," a temporary stockade set up on the courthouse lawn, with release contingent on paying a fine.

The parade drew a crowd of ten thousand, while several hundred spectators enjoyed the nightly pageants and partook in the ball. The overwhelming success of the first De Soto Festival left the Bradenton Chamber of Commerce confident that it would evolve into a cherished annual tradition.

However, the initial success of the De Soto Festival in 1939 faced a significant interruption due to the ominous war clouds gathering over Europe in 1941. The attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into World War II, leading to the suspension of the festival. It wasn't until 1948, well after the war's conclusion, that the De Soto Festival made its comeback. Despite the hiatus, the spirit of the event endured, and it evolved into the present-day Heritage Festival, a testament to the resilience and enduring legacy of this cherished community celebration.


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