The children’s Mardi Gras ladders that are ubiquitous along parade routes probably came from a family-owned Uptown hardware store.
The parade-ladder tradition has been traced back to the 1940s, according to a 2007 Times-Picayune story. Uptown native Linda Clarke told a reporter that her father, Clarence Francis, came up with the idea of building a ladder seat after she was burned by a flare during an evening parade. Not long after, the DIY retrofitted ladders started appearing up and down the parade route.
“I used to sit in one of these when I was a kid,” said Darren Clement, who co-owns Clement Hardware with his wife, Michele.
Rick Torres, the owner of Freret Hardware, said he began making parade ladders in 1982, when he took over the business from his father, Fred Torres.
The store has been in business since 1938, and always at the same location. “Once Harry’s Hardware closes,” Torres said, “we will be the oldest hardware store in the city.”
The ladders are a product of small hardware stores, which are becoming increasingly rare in the age of big box and online stores. Soon Uptown will be down another ladder-supplier: Harry’s Ace Hardware on Magazine Street is closing in March, to the dismay of the neighborhood.
Before Chicago resident Ann James came to New Orleans with her grandchildren to see Mardi Gras parades, locals told her they needed parade ladders to be able to see and catch beads.
“I ordered two over the phone from Clement’s and they even delivered them to our rental place,” she added. “The kids found the ladders helped them get above the crowd and catch those necklaces and stuffed animals.”
Clement’s has been making the parade ladders for some 20 years, and like Freret Hardware, for safety reasons, they sell the seat section separately from the ladder. And both stores offer the seats in the $70 to $75 range.
The seats come with instructions and the bolts to attach them to the ladders. Harry’s Ace Hardware released a video on Facebook showing customers how to assemble the ladders so that children stay safe and secure.
To make rolling to the parade route easier, the seats have wheels attached to them. The seat sections come unpainted, but custom models are available with purple, green and gold paint and special features for safety and convenience.
Rick Torres, who used to watch the Krewe of Freret parade roll by his family’s store from the top of a ladder, said of the embellishments: “If we have it and they want it, we will add it to the ladders. This includes a paint job, cup holders, bead hooks and the like.”
Darren Clement, whose father, Fred, purchased the store on the corner of Magazine and State Street in 1980, says he always emphasizes safety precautions when selling ladders to families. “The city ordinance states that they need to be 6 feet back from the curb, so I always tell people that. And that ladders should never be chained together, and children should not be left unattended,” he said. “We want them to be both happy and safe.”
The City Council also approved an ordinance on Jan. 30, 2020, that all ladders, as well as chairs, ice chests and other personal items, can’t be in the public right-of-way such as the neutral ground and the area between the sidewalk and street until, at most, four hours before a parade, and they must be removed at the end of that day’s final parade.
Supply chain issues and the price of lumber have affected this Carnival season’s production of parade ladder seats. However, parade goers are more enthusiastic than ever, and these ladders are already being sold.
Clement said his sales seem to be determined by the weather. “When it’s cold and rainy, we sell fewer parade ladders than when it’s warm and sunny,” he said.
Torres says when they get overwhelmed in-house with orders, they have to contract out the manufacturing. “My first batch of 27 is almost sold out,” he said.