The Elbert Files: Bring back Seni Om Sed
Friday, July 19, 2013 7:00 AM
Remember Seniom Sed (Des Moines spelled backwards) from the 1980s and ‘90s, those Friday after-work parties that were held during the summer at Nollen Plaza?
The Junior Chamber of Commerce was the sponsor. The Jaycees would rope off the area around the plaza fountain, hire a band and charge a few bucks for beer.
It was a great way to keep downtown alive on Friday evenings at a time when there wasn’t much going on at Court Avenue and even less in the East Village.
It was fun for a lot of us, but nothing like the original. Seni Om Sed (spelled with three words instead of two) was created in 1889 by the Des Moines Commercial Exchange, the forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce and today’s Greater Des Moines Partnership.
The first Seni Om Sed was tied to the Iowa State Fair, which had opened at its permanent home on the east side of Des Moines in 1886.
Des Moines business leaders had wanted to boost fair attendance and increase the visibility of the city, so they staged a carnival parade patterned after New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, honoring a mythological harvest king named Seni Om Sed.
The name Seni Om Sed “suggests mystery,” said a report by the Iowa Agricultural Society on the 1889 fair. “It looks as if it were spoken in some faraway dim oriental clime, some magical place rich in tradition.”
Electricity was new to Des Moines, and the 1889 fair report said: “The streets were illuminated by thousands of electric lights shining through many colored glass globes, and arranged in many artistic forms.”
“Admiring multitudes” lined the streets as “the king in all his majesty led the commercial interests of Des Moines in the greatest trades display ever seen in the State,” the report said.
There were “Indians, and native Iowans, in full dress; then the cowboys; the old stage coaches; a float with Indian tent and campfire; one with log cabin and pioneer occupants,” it said.
Altogether there were “86 floats representing as many industries and trades, all gotten up with reference to harmony, beauty and appropriateness, and with little regard to expense,” the report said.
The second Seni Om Sed parade in 1890 was even larger, with an estimated 85,000 spectators lining the parade route.
The big attraction that year was the world’s first electric car, which made its public debut in the Sept. 4, 1890 parade, according to Iowa automobile historian Bill Jepsen of Boone.
The vehicle was the invention of William Morrison, “an emigrant from Scotland who was described as quiet, mysterious, and at times pompous.” He was also “a genius when it came to electric storage batteries,” Jepsen wrote in his 2006 book “Made In Iowa: Iowa’s Automobiles.”
Morrison had a laboratory in the basement of Lumbard Jewelry, a store on Fifth Avenue between Grand Avenue and Locust Street.
His electric buggy “was a high and handsome affair with three seats and room for nine people,” Jepsen wrote.
It was powered by 24 storage battery cells placed beneath the seats. The engine was 4 horsepower and could travel up to 100 miles at six to 12 miles an hour without recharging the batteries.
Not long after Morrison’s appearance, the State Fair and Seni Om Sed had a falling out.
“The carnival and parade distracted urban patrons and contributed to declining revenues at the fair through the early 1890s,” an 1894 report on the fair said.
Seni Om Sed was moved to October and later disbanded.
The original Seni Om Sed lasted about 30 years, which was about 10 years longer than the 1980s version.
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