Hats off to Flower Mart

Fair: Thousands attend the 87th festival in Mount Vernon.

May 13, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

If it's Mount Vernon in May, with lemon, straw and seersucker, then it must be Baltimore's Flower Mart.

And so it was yesterday for the 87th festival leading to this weekend's Preakness Stakes. Under a bright sun, Baltimoreans turned out by the thousands to enjoy the street scene of hats, flowers, arts and crafts, funnel cake, and crab cakes - all in a mix some said was better than ever.

Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., 36, the 4th District city councilman, said he always counts the fair as the first day of spring, recalling that he first attended as a child with his grandmother, Juanita Jackson Mitchell.

"My grandma was known for her big spring hats. And I'd always get my sausage and lemonade," he said, hatless in the heat. "Now I get diet lemonade. That's how old I'm getting."

Everywhere around the Washington Monument, old and new seemed to meet.

For the flower faithful, there was an election for Baltimore's new official flower, a contest between the lilac and the daffodil. Until yesterday, the city flower was a rose, but there was a consensus that it was time for a change.

"Since we're in a new millennium, let's change the flower, " Alexis McKenzie said as she surveyed the ballots. She said the City Council had agreed to abide by yesterday's results - in which the lilac won, 757 to 438.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, yesterday's honorary chairman of Flower Mart, proudly rode in a horse-drawn carriage over the cobblestones. During the lunchtime ceremony, he picked up a controversy he began last week by again emphasizing the importance of speaking English.

Mayor Martin O'Malley - who sharply criticized those comments this week - wasn't there, but the mayor's wife, Katie Curran O'Malley, gently poked fun at the comptroller by saying "bienvenidos" to welcome the crowd.

For most of the 20th century, the event was organized by the Women's Civic League. Several years ago, ailing and aging league volunteers decided to turn over management to Frederick Bierer, a lawyer, and Carol K. Purcell, a younger league member. The new team put together a nonprofit group to run Flower Mart, generating a new wave of business support and resolving to make the event more in tune with trends.

Drinking a cold vanilla mocha and chatting with his family in the shade, Bierer said he felt as if the event they pictured had come to town. About 120 vendors selling such items as Italian ceramics and stained glass set up booths yesterday, many of them relatively new to Flower Mart. Bierer said he also invited 18 area Catholic schools to participate.

Kindergartners who walked over from Mount Royal Elementary School and third-graders from the Bryn Mawr School visited Flower Mart, most for the first time.

"We come faithfully every year, and this is our hottest outing," said Anne Gibson, a teacher at Mount Royal. "Each [child] has $2 for cotton candy or a balloon. We hardly ever buy a flower, I'm sorry to say."

While the kindergartners enjoyed a puppet show near a water fountain, pupils from Bryn Mawr School performed a seasonal dance around the maypole for a street audience that included public defenders, sorority sisters and other adults who had strolled over on their lunch hour.

Peggy Bessent, their principal at Bryn Mawr, said she had not witnessed the Mount Vernon scene since her high school days. "I love how this transforms the area," she said. "People are embracing the city."

Standing nearby was 13-year-old Emily Waters, feeding a strawberry to a police horse named Zeus. "We all have something in common," she said. "I love coming here because anyone can come."

The Lady Baltimore hat contest was carried away by Bobbie McKinney, 51, of West Baltimore, who won on her fourth try. For the first time, a separate children's hat contest was held, with one prize going for the "grooviest."

But the traditional Junior League tea was no more. It was replaced at the Engineering Club by a one-man performance of John Dausch, H.L. Mencken Remembers the 1904 Great Baltimore Fire.

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