Published on May 9th, 2018 | by Randy Weeks0
The View from the Balcony: The Untold History of the Double-Decker Arts Festival
With the stellar cooperation of Mother Nature, this year’s Double Decker Arts Festival was a resounding success. Accolades go out to Mayor Robin Tannehill and the tireless staff of the City of Oxford and the Oxford Police Department. Most think that the DDAF began in 1996, but as mentioned in my last column, Double Decker Disasters, this incarnation of the DDAF is not the first.
After the burning of Oxford in 1864, along with the courthouse and most of the other buildings in town, the spirits of Oxfordians were reduced to ashes. (See Newt Cooter Rayburn’s outstanding description of that horrid event: http://www.TheLocalVoice.net/oxford/150-years-ago-august-22-1864-the-burning-of-oxford-mississippi/.) The Civil War had taken a heavy toll on the South, but as William Cullen Bryant wrote, “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again.”
Immediately after the 1864 burning of Oxford town, a small contingency of those who had lost everything, including loved ones, vowed to never let the world forget the martyrs. They called it “Gone But Not Forgotten.” (First runner-up for the name was “Forget? Hell!”) Plans were made for a commemoration to be held on the first anniversary of the Act of Northern Incineration.
On August 22, 1865, a somber yet proud group of about 150 mourners gathered on the courthouse lawn to pay homage to those lost in the burning of Oxford. They sang hymns, prayed, and read the names of all Lafayette Countians whose lives had been taken in the fire, under the direction of General A.J. “Whiskey” Smith. The time of remembrance was an Eben-Ezer* in the healing of Oxford.
GBNF became an annual event. Over time the gathering grew. With growth came the eventual infiltration of opportunistic carpetbaggers (redundant)—lurid leeches determined to profit from the pain. In 1883 two New York men decided to seize upon the occasion.
Donald and Douglas Decker were twin brothers who had gained a garish reputation for preying on unsuspecting immigrants as they entered the United States at Ellis Island. They sold deeds to land that didn’t exist and traded counterfeit money for foreign currency. No scam was too vile for them.
The Decker brothers had read about the Gone But Not Forgotten event and headed south, arriving in Oxford in the spring. Donald and Douglas opened a small store just off the Square that sold all manner of trinkets. They joined St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and started ministries to needy residents. By the time the GBNF event was held that year the Decker brothers had become local heroes. So, when they brought food and drink to sell at the GBNF, no one thought anything was awry.
The next year the Decker brothers came to the city fathers with a plan to make the GBNF a formal, official event that would benefit the city’s coffers and the poor. The plan was enthusiastically adopted, and the name was changed to the Double Decker Festival for the Fallen.
Vendors began to show up at the DDFF, selling food and drink, pictures of dead Union soldiers, and cheesy souvenirs such as bottles of soil from battle grounds of Confederate victories, and whiskers from the beards of Confederate dignitaries like Nathan Bedford Forrest, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. In the 1890’s stage plays that re-enacted the assassination of Abe Lincoln and other such pro-Confederate attractions appeared, as did musical acts. The Double Decker Festival for the Fallen had become a great financial boon to the area, but it moved far and away from its original purpose.
As fate would have it, on the eve of the 20th annual DDFF the Decker brothers were discovered colluding with other carpetbaggers to skim substantial sums of money from the festival receipts. The ensuing investigation revealed that this had been going on for years. In a swift trial the Decker brothers were found guilty and were to be hanged on the courthouse lawn at noon on the next day.
In the heat of the night and under the cover of darkness, the Deckers absconded from the Oxford City Jail, fleeing north toward home. A year later Donald and Douglas mysteriously disappeared. Their lifeless, mangled bodies were found in a back alley in the Bronx, tied together with barbed wire and a 12-foot-long chitlin’, their mouths crammed full of cracklin’ bread.
The brothers were buried in an obscure location that later became the site of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The DDFF returned to its roots and carried on as a brief, small, religious service, held in the basement of the Oxford City Jail until 1917, when the USA entered World War I.
Mayor Tannehill conceived and birthed the modern day cleaned-up Oxford Woodstock. She successfully removed the vestiges of division and suffering and gave us a joyful celebration to be relished by all for years to come. No, the spirit of the GBNF event is neither gone nor forgotten, for, as we all know, as The Dude abides, so doth the past.
…and that’s the view from The Balcony.
*Eben-Ezer, Hebrew, meaning, “stone of help” (1 Samuel 7:12). Referred to in the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”: Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’ve come.