Des Moines used to host one of the most exciting festivals in the Midwest, a carnival of Marde Gras-esque proportions.

Those of you who’ve lived here a little while will recognize the name Seniom-Sed but the name actually goes back way earlier than most people know.

Seni-Om-Sed used to be one of the biggest parties around. People would come from all over Iowa to attend the festivities. The festival started in conjunction with the State Fair. At the time the fair was entirely agricultural, without all the entertainment options that are part of it now. After the sun went down, so did the fair. So the Des Moines Commerce Exchange (what is now the Greater Des Moines Partnership) founded a festival to take place during the fair. This would happen both at night and during the day. They created a fictional king called King Seni-Om-Sed to rule over the proceedings. There were daily parades and massive fireworks exhibitions at night. And people came in droves. The 1890 festival drew a little over 85,000 people.

What began in cooperation with the state fair quickly turned into a competition. The fair had moved to its current location on the east side and Seni-Om-Sed became the West side’s festival. There were angry allegations that one side of the river was giving more to the festivities. There was a call to do separate activities on either side of the river, which thankfully didn’t pass. The problem quickly became that some of the parades held during the day, were pulling crowds away from the fair. It was struggling. In response, the fair started adding new entertainment. They contracted with one of the pyrotechnic companies that had done some of the Seni-Om-Sed displays to put on ones at the fairgrounds instead. In 1898 the Paine Pyrotechnics company put on The Battle of Manilla at Seni-Om-Sed. Two years later they were putting on gigantic displays for the Fairgrounds. In many ways the competition made the fair what it is today. The parade is a direct offshoot of the various parades that were part of the festival.

That said it was still a citywide event. Advertisements in the paper were calling for all houses on the parade routes to decorate. Businesses were quick to capitalize on the need and offer their services. The event shut down a large section of the downtown area, and included the creation of a large welcome gate. Both Walnut and Locust were closed. The parades, often several over the course of the week, ran for a mile to two miles through the city.

There are a few notable stories that have come out of Seni-Om-Sed.

William Morrison’s electric car

The first electric car was invented here in Des Moines and debuted at a Seni-Om-Sed parade in 1890. Invented by William Morrison the car could run for 100 miles on a single charge. Morrison was a battery inventor and mostly focused on those, but he knew that he needed to provide people with an example of what the batteries could do. Morrison’s car used 24 batteries hidden under the seats. It had a top speed of about 8 miles per hour. For most Des Moineans, this would be the first horseless carriage they would see.

Handy the Elephant

There was an elephant in Davenport. It had been given to the Davenport Malting Company to settle a claim it had against a traveling circus. I want to know more about this story. The elephant lived large on beer and liver sausage. It carried materials for the brewers that would injure the horses or mules that worked there. It was lent to the carnival in 1898 by the brewing company and arrived by train to great fanfare. It was there to lead the Burlesque parade. It sadly didn’t get the same fare as at home, having to make do with water and hay. It’s unknown what happened to Handy after the carnival. It's thought it returned to Davenport to finish the rest of its days at the brewery.

Vicksburg Extravaganza

One of the major events that occurred with the carnival were the fireworks displays at night put on by the Paine Pyrotechnic Company out of Chicago. I had mentioned the one earlier that was meant to showcase the Battle of Manilla. That drew tens of thousands and included not only fireworks but costumed soldiers as well and ships. The whole extravaganza cost $5,000 in 1890 money. That works out to about $155,000 in today’s money. In 1897 the carnival put on a show to imitate the Siege of Vicksburg. About 60,000 attended, in comparison to the State Fair, which only drew 20,000 that day. The siege took place on the river and included boats, and


In 1979 the Des Moines Jaycees started offering an after work party downtown at Nollen Plaza and they reclaimed the name with a twist. This was Seniom Sed, to differentiate it from the earlier festival. The Friday night beer and music fest ran from 1979 to 2002 during the summer months. At times it would bring up to 2,000 to 3,000 people to the plaza. Generally described as a meat market it was well attended by young professionals who worked downtown. It was so successful that the suburbs decided to create their own. By 2002, festivals like Clive after 5 and Function in the Junction were bringing people to the suburbs instead. At the end there were only 100 or so people attending and the festival was shut down.

Interested in the name? For those of you who haven’t guessed, it’s Des Moines spelled backwards.