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By Andrew Wedgebury
Putting the ‘fun in fundraising’
Merry Widows change lives while adding life to Mardi Gras
On Feb. 18, Nevada City residents and visitors will once again be enjoying the annual Mardi Gras Parade and related festivities.

Entertaining floats, marching bands, unusual costumes, colorful beads and a Mardi Gras Street Faire attract thousands ready to celebrate “Fat Tuesday” in the downtown area.

One of the most notable participants in this year’s parade is the Merry Widows Society of California, a group that first marched down Broad Street in 1993 as part of Joe Cain Days. In 2017, the philanthropic group noted its 25th anniversary of celebrating the Mardi Gras tradition and is widely recognized as the initial creative force behind what is one of Nevada City’s most popular weekends.

The original parade, which was more a march down the sidewalks, included a group of widows (dressed in black) celebrating the memory of Joe Cain, a Mobile, Alabama, man credited with renewing Mardi Gras celebrations that were suspended due to the Civil War. Part of Mobile’s Mardi Gras festivities featured groups of women marching to his grave. By 1994, the Nevada City “Widows” thought philanthropy and the spirit of Mardi Gras was a good mix for Nevada County. Each member portrays a different fictional widow of Joe Cain, with names such as Sugar Cain, Xyla Cain, Lana Cain, and Candy Cain – you get the picture.

“In the early days it wasn’t really a parade, and we hadn’t thought about how to contribute to the community,” said Maryann Crabb, president of the Merry Widows. “It was just a chance to have fun with some friends.

But as part of the Joe Cain Society we were required to do something to benefit the community. We actually started by helping fix up cemeteries in Nevada City. Then one of our founding members, Gina Thompson, came up with a proposal to start a scholarship fund for single parents.”

The scholarship fund raising remains the most important function of the Merry Widows today. The group has used its humorous annual newspaper, The Merry Widow Gazette, to raise over $80,000 through the years for about 70 low-income, single-parent families. Many generous donors and advertisers are always ready to help support the paper.

“At the Sierra College Scholarship Awards ceremony, it’s heartwarming to see our recipients’ children. They look so proud when they see their parents receive recognition for doing so well in school,” she said. “And our financial aid allows these hardworking students a chance to spend more time with their children.”

There have been 41 members since 1993 that have taken their place as part of the 12 Merry Widows, but the element of fun and camaraderie remains constant. “We haven’t changed that much. As our motto says, we still put fun in everything we do,” Maryann said. “We put the ‘fun’ in fundraising.”

One look at The Merry Widow Gazette and it is apparent how much fun the Widows can have with various subjects. With a colorful cover usually created by cartoonist Bob Crabb, the paper is packed with humorous stories, photos, gossip, recipes, history, and of course, pictures of the Widows. The 2017 issue featured a “Sirens of the Sea” cover, a theme from the Constitution Day Parade. On occasion, the group will also march in that annual parade, bringing attention to current issues. For the 2017 parade, the Merry Widows had a message of “Get Your Tails to The Voting Booth,” and the members donned elaborate mermaid and aquatic sea creature costumes.

“The Mardi Gras parade is the main event for us,” Maryann said, “but when the spirit moves us, we participate in the Constitution Day Parade.”

One of the most popular aspects of the Mardi Gras Parade is the handing out of beads. The Widows enlist the aid of an available friend or husband to roll a large wheelbarrow down the street full to the brim with hundreds of colorful bead necklaces. The Widows walk on either side of the street giving out beads and smiles and receiving many in return. In the wild and wooly “old days,” beads were thrown to the crowd, along with jets of water and prizes, but it now has become a safer event for all ages.

Now that 2018 has arrived, Maryann is hopeful that the Merry Widows can reach the $100,000 fundraising mark and continue its mission of helping single parents reach their academic goals. Members of the Society look forward to having a good time in the Mardi Gras Parade each year, but know that the real enjoyment is in helping students with a scholarship.

For more information, email maryanncrabb@yahoo.com.
Image by Andew Wedgebury
Maryann Crabb, the president of the Merry Widows, enjoys a ride in a Mardi Gras Parade in Nevada City. The group celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2017.