Have You Seen
Orange May Festival

If you lived in Orange 20 or 30 years ago, you probably already know about the annual Orange May Festival. It was the biggest community celebration in town for decades, until the International Street Fair came along.

The May Festival began in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression. Orange was looking for a way to laugh away the hard times, so everybody dressed up to celebrate the “pioneer days” (which for them meant the 1890s) and held a parade through downtown.

In the pioneer days, May Day was an annual celebration here, with picnics, parties and baskets of spring flowers. It’s also about the time you start picking Valencia oranges, which gave another excuse for the celebration. The May Festival parade caught on fast and by 1935, the Orange Daily News estimated that 15,000 people turned out for the day.

Other events were later added, including a separate youth parade, street dances, concerts, sporting events (often featuring Orange’s women’s softball team, the Lionettes) and a horse show. A May Day Queen was selected from among the girls at Orange Union High School (a tradition that later morphed into the Miss Orange pageant), and by 1951, a carnival was added in Hart Park, with rides, food and attractions.

With the coming of World War II, the May Festival celebration went dark, with only one parade in 1944. In 1947 and ’48, the parade was held in September and billed as the Orange Harvest Festival (though to be fair, you can still harvest Valencia oranges in September). The Chamber of Commerce sponsored the celebration for many years, with help from other groups like the Junior Chamber of Commerce (the Jaycees), who took over the whole shebang in 1964. By then, the May Festival had grown into almost a full week of events. Elaborately decorated floats, marching bands and antique automobiles participated in the parade.

But with the coming of the Orange International Street Fair in 1973, the May Festival began to lose its luster. The crowds dwindled through the 1980s, but it was the recession of the early 1990s that finally put an end to the event. Early in 1992, the city announced that they could no longer afford to help subsidize the celebration or pick up the added costs for police patrols and clean up, and that was that.

There’s a historical plaque commemorating the May Festival on the north side of the Plaza fountain, placed in 1976. You might also spare a thought for the old May Festival the next time you drive down Mayfair Avenue – a 1950s street name that just might come from our old-time civic celebration.

Published in the Sep/Oct 2012 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review

Written by Phil Brigandi, Photo courtesy of the Authors Collection

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