By William Cannon
Every spring, God smiles as one of his creations, Rhododendron Azalea, begins to bloom here on the gulf coast of Alabama. This year, another of God’s creations, Elana Lofton, daughter of Helen and James Lofton, Jr., of Mount Vernon, Alabama, is one of the fifty girls representing Mobile County Alabama as an Azalea Trail Maid.
A senior at Murphy high school, Miss Lofton will serve until the spring of 2011 when the new crop of azalea begins to bloom and Elana’s time on the Azalea Trail court, will be winding down.
In April of 2009 Elana began her year as an official Ambassador to the City of Mobile. Her first appearance was the grand opening of the Hank Aaron Boyhood Home and Learning Center at Hank Aaron Stadium.
It was opening day for the Mobile Bay Bears professional baseball club and Elana, along with the other Azalea Trail Maids, appeared out of the spring day the same way new azalea are born forth out of the evergreen azalea bushes. Azaleas have been an inspiration to poets, bumble bees and lovers for generations. The beautiful perennial adornments were also an inspiration to a man named Sam Lackland. Mr. Lackland, along with Mobile’s junior chamber of commerce, now known as the Jaycees, in 1929, began encouraging citizens to plant azalea along city streets. These streets became known as the azalea trail. The azalea trail runs through much of the city and for many years, beginning in the early 1970’s, the trail was marked by a pink line painted down the center of the road. The practice was abandoned in the nineties at the request of state highway commission.
The Azalea Trail Court began as a group of ten girls who gathered over the course of a three day period to welcome visitors to the opening of the trail. The Trail maids became so popular that girls from all over the southeast began making bids to be a part of the court. A decision was made to allow only girls from Mobile County to become Azalea Trail Maids. These girls represent Mobile year round. Azalea Trail Maids are unique and can only be found in Mobile, Alabama. A pageant for girls from the rest of the country, America’s Junior Miss, was created and is still hosted in Mobile. The court has also grown from the original ten Trail Maids. Now fifty high school seniors are chosen from around the county. These girls compete, during their junior year, for a place on the court.
Miss Lofton explained that the process to become a Trail Maid began in earnest at the beginning of her junior year at Murphy High School. Qualifications are very strict and the girls who apply are stringently tested. The girls must have a 3.5 grade point average, be active in their community, know Mobile’s history and be informed—know current events. They must have poise and be able to converse with tourists who, of course, are drawn to Trail Maids by the high profile, antebellum dresses they wear.
Panels of judges at Mobile County’s high schools choose representatives from each school. The number of girls sent from each school to compete on the county level depends on the current enrollment at that school. Girls chosen to represent their schools, along with an alternate, will go on to the county to compete for a place on the Trail Maid Court.
The county interviews are conducted by judges brought in from outside the area to insure impartiality. The girls are judged on their interview skills, presence, poise and personality. They are graded on the way they interact with the judges (a tourist) and on their knowledge of Mobile history. These interviews, along with those all important academic scores, determine the next fifty girls who will make up the Azalea Trail Court.
The county wide interviews are conducted on a Saturday and by Sunday evening the results are posted on the Jaycee’s web site for the girls to see. Once chosen, the next step is to have the dress made. The antebellum dresses are custom made. As soon as a girl decides to tryout for the Trail Maids, she is advised to get on a dress maker’s list—some do as young as fourteen, in the eight grade. The dress makers can only make a limited number of dresses in the time allotted—approximately four months from the time the girls are chosen for the court and appearances begin. Fabric for the dresses is bought by the Jaycees to insure uniformity.
A reception is held for the girls who are chosen—The Queen’s Reception; there the girls are introduced and they receive a swatch of fabric tied to a rose. The color of this fabric is to be the color of the girls dress. The five colors are blue, yellow, peach, lavender and green. The Queen of each year’s court wears a pink dress.
The custom fit dresses consist of eleven separate parts: The Hoop—Made cotton casings that hold the steel rods that shape the skirt. Pantaloons—Resemble pajama pants and are worn under the dress. The Skirt—Worn directly over the hoop, usually consist of multiple layers of ruffles. The Fitted Bodice—Must be separate from the skirt, fit to the waist line and have continuous ruffle at the top and no sleeves. The Apron—Fits over the skirt and is usually where the decorative design of the dress is contained. A Cummerbund—With bow and sash, fits over the waist line and gives a finished appearance. Gauntlets—Open fingered gloves. Parasol—She will carry a parasol designed similar to the dress. A Bonnet—Fits on the crown of the head and must have ruffles similar to the dress and have ties that may be detachable. A Cape—Lined with faux fur is only worn during the winter months and Azalea Trail Maids wear square dancer’s shoes that have been dyed to match the color of their dresses.
Azalea Trail Maids make local appearances every week. The “Official Ambassadors” to the City of Mobile have signature appearances, The Senior Bowl, GMAC Bowl, America’s Junior Miss as well as various parades. The girls also do appearances where they volunteer to help local organizations and may not appear in their dresses.
National appearances during their year on the court often include the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, The Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, Christmas Parade in Chicago and Presidential Inauguration Parade and The Easter Parade at Walt Disney World. This year, Elana says, the Court is scheduled for a Thanksgiving Parade in Chicago and Easter Parade at Disney World.
Two organizations keep the Trail Maids up and running. The Mobile Jaycees handle administrative duties; the organize trips, appearances and fund raisers for the Trail Maids. The Young Women’s Civic Club provides advisors for the Trail Maid Court; one head advisor and ten advisors, one for ever five girls—they like to have all five colors at each appearance. Advisors are tasked with the responsibility of keep the girls up to speed their appearance schedule and what to expect at each event. The YWCC also provides a one thousand dollar scholarship. The Kaitlin Marie Overstreet Memorial Scholarship is awarded to one outstanding Trail Maid every year.
Elana is our community’s Azalea Trail Maid; she is full of Southern Charm and Hospitality. Mount Vernon is a better place with our Elana and she will be missed when her time on the Azalea Trail Court ends and she graduates to make her way in the world. Everything Azalea Trail Maids do is for their community—this all looks very good on applications to institutions of higher learning who are interested in adding a more diverse student body to their campuses.