The Recreational Wagon Train: A Contemporary Equestrian Festival in the Southern United States
This paper will explore the social function and the signification of contemporary wagon trains in the US South. Since the 1950s, recreational wagon trains have emerged as participant-oriented festivals in the southeastern United States. Rural festivals that are the centerpiece of participants’ social lives, wagon trains consist of weekend-to-week-long encampments featuring group trail rides. Participants in horse- or mule-drawn covered wagons are the spiritual centers of the events; other participants ride horses or mules outfitted in western saddles. Back home, participants research, build, or modify their wagons, train and tend to their livestock, and assemble the vehicles needed to travel to the events, all of which represents a considerable outlay of time and money.
The visual iconography of the event suggests the Old West; however, participants generally have no family history of westward migration, and the South’s equestrian traditions were not historically western in style. Instead, wagon trains are a synthesis of traditional Southern equine-based agriculture and media images of the Old West. As a performance of Southern culture reinvented as Old West, wagon trains are important sites for participants to redefine their rural heritage by presenting themselves as romantic cowboys rather than dirt farmers. However, these socially complex festivals also become sites for retrenching reactionary attitudes toward whiteness in a society increasingly committed to racial and ethnic diversity.
One might see wagon trains as either Baudrillardian simulacra or reenactments, but these views are erroneous. Rather, wagon trains are festivals that escape from the boundaries of signification to become a complete way of life for their participants. In fact, these events can be seen as autochthonous, since, unlike consumer-oriented festivals staged by organizers for non-participating viewers, they arise from within the group itself, and it is within the group that participants perform both self and society.
Keywords: Festivals, Rural Festivals, Regional Festivals, Media Studies, Social Change, Material Culture, Costumes, Equestrian, Folklife, Old West, American South
Dr. Theresa Lloyd
Associate Professor, Department of English;