A presidential inauguration, feast, and slave auction attended Dixie’s springtime secession from the Union. But it wasn’t 1861 or south of the Mason–Dixon line—it was March 13, 1987 in St. George, Utah.
“The old South will rise again,” declared the Washington County News on March 13, 1987. “Rebels everywhere prepare to secede from the state in a two-day celebration of Utah’s Dixie,” a nickname for southern Utah.
Part county fair, part gala, and part fundraiser, the Dixie “Secession” of 1987 was the brainchild of Lon Henderson, a St. George resident who the Chamber of Commerce had tasked with putting together a fundraiser. Rejecting the Chamber’s initial suggestion of a coupon book, Henderson proposed a “once-a-year, gala celebration-type activity” with Secession as the unifying theme, inspired by the region’s nickname and the local college’s Rebel mascot.
Although the Chamber of Commerce liked the idea, it did not feel confident about hosting such a large event on its own. But the city government of St. George had also asked Henderson to organize a fundraiser on its behalf, and he realized he could solve one problem with another. Henderson invited the city to join the enterprise and later Dixie College and the Washington County School District as well. Together, the four groups agreed to jointly sponsor the Secession, and they tasked a “Secession committee” with organizing the event. Advertisements sponsoring the Secession appeared in newspapers, television, and radio, and local businesses tied into the Secession, promising discounts for customers who displayed official Secession pin-back buttons.
The two-day “celebration package” spanned Friday through Saturday, March 13 and 14, and was large in scope. Some events seemed like they could come from any weekend fair, such as the golf tournament, inauguration of Dixie College president Douglas Alder, country music concert with Mel Tillis and Dottie West, and hot air balloon race. But other activities embraced the aesthetics of the Secession name. At 11:00 AM on Saturday, a bronze statue of two Confederate soldiers was dedicated at the Dixie Center Plaza (see “The Rebels of Dixie State” for more). Later, at 11:45 AM in Worthen Park, Utah Governor Norman Bangerter read a secession proclamation, announcing that St. George would be “officially seceded” from Utah from noon until midnight. Accompanied by the Dixie Middle School Band, Bangerter fired an “old Dixie cannon” at 12:00 PM to officially begin the festivities.
A “Southern Utah State Fair” offered rides on hot air balloons, a greased pig chase, and a chance to plunge Mayor Karl Brooks at a dunking booth. Simultaneously, a “Southern barbecue” served barbecued meats, corn bread, and green salad while performers sang jazz and country music. An auction also started at noon, offering over a hundred items including a microwave, a keyboard, a chainsaw—and “slaves.” The Washington County News wrote, “Slaves will also be sold at the auction.” These “slaves” were local community members, and “purchasing” them at the auction entitled one to “the services they will provide.” For example, Mayor Karl Brooks put himself up for sale and offered to “assign the city to perform a service.” Royce Jones, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, promised to “mow a lawn.” Finally, the Secession closed with the evening “Dixie Ball,” a dance themed after the popular 1939 film Gone With the Wind. Plus, whoever wore the “best overall” “Southern costume” was promised a special prize: a $400 VCR with a copy of Gone With the Wind.
Including both advertising sponsorships and ticket fees, the 1987 Secession took in a little over $40,000 in revenue, but the cost of putting on the event was so high the Secession’s four organizing institutions made only about $15,000 in profit. Nevertheless, they resolved to make the tradition annual, and on February 12, 1988, Mayor Brooks publicly proclaimed that on March 12, Utah’s Dixie would secede “from everything or anything you want,” including “snow, fog, the phone, the kids.” Henderson helped unfurl a forty-foot-long Confederate battle flag over St. George Boulevard, and members of the Utah National Guard fired a rifle salute.
The 1988 Secession added new events: a 10K run, a volleyball tournament, and a second dance intended for college students called “The Rebellion.” Governor Bangerter stepped aside as “president” of the Secession, replaced by television news anchor Dick Norse.
TV and radio commercials once again publicized the Secession, made possible in 1988 by John H. Morgan, president of Utah Resources International, Inc. In exchange for including a plug for his St. George Hilton Inn, Morgan donated nearly $30,000 of advertising time to the Secession. One ad declared, “Dixie is Rising again. And we are rebelling. Rebelling against crime, ignorance, sloth, and idleness. And we’re building a great community.”
Despite the excitement, the “annual” tradition did not take. 1988 was the last time Utah’s Dixie “seceded.”