A friend in Ireland, John MacCrossan, with whom I frequently correspond, noticed a vital clue in the old photographs: a schellenbaum.
Schellenbaums were a percussion instrument about seven feet long and consisted of a pole topped with brass ornaments and bells. To play the instrument, one would either shake it up and down, or twist it. Some even had cranks that rotated the tall device.
Noticing that odd instrument, as well as counting the 44 stars on one of the flags in the photograph, gave the clues that finally solved the riddle: the photographs showed a Saengerfest celebration in downtown Kerrville in September 1896.
A Saengerfest, as you might guess, was a celebration brought to Texas by German immigrants and was a festival of singers. These celebrations were common among German communities in Texas and elsewhere. Most of the choirs that participated were all male, though a few included mixed choruses. Many Hill Country communities had a choir; Kerrville’s choir was called “Concordia,” and Kerrville’s own Julius Real served as the president of the “TexanisherGebirgsSangerbund,” or Texas Hill Country Singing Clubs League. In 1896 the various choirs gathered in Kerrville for a two-day celebration. The parade of men in the photographs were singing as they marched.
Another big celebration in Kerrville was the West Texas Fair. The celebration had its fairgrounds, to the west of Town Creek, somewhere in the neighborhood of Hugo and Starkey Streets, behind the Wells Fargo Bank building at Five Points.
The late Warren Klein sent me this information on the West Texas Fair years ago — “The West Texas Fair was held each year around the 4th of July.” This fair took place in grand buildings built especially for the fair.
“One thing I remember about the fair of 1915: a man had an airplane and he would take people up for a ride. The thing I remembered about the airplane was that it didn’t have a self-starter. The propeller was at the back of the plane. In order to start it, a person had to turn the propeller by hand, but he wanted ‘back up,’ so he joined hands with 6 other men. One thing that still puzzles me today is where my brand new straw hat went when that plane started!”
Other events at the old West Texas Fair: an early game of basketball; horse races; judging of various agricultural products; homemaking contests; and many baseball matches.
For many years the community celebrated the Fourth of July with a large rodeo, held near the football stadium.
On July 10, 1941, the Salter family published a 10-page issue of the Kerrville Mountain Sun, with a huge headline that read, “12,500 Spectators Crowd Tivy Field for Annual Hill Country Championship Rodeo, Horseshow,” and reported on the seventh annual rodeo produced by the Kerrville Junior Chamber of Commerce (the Jaycees).
I have photographs of the rodeo and parade from that era, and it was a big deal. The rodeo in 1941 was a two-day event, so attendance averaged over 6,000 folks each night.
It says the event took place at “Tivy Field,” and you would assume it was at what we call Antler Stadium today, but that would be wrong: Antler Stadium didn’t open until the autumn of ‘41. In talking with several Tivy alums from that era, I think “Tivy Field” was in the block bounded by Tivy, Barnett, Third, and College Streets, behind what was called Tivy Elementary when I was a student. (I had always assumed the field was behind the school, adjacent to the Auld Center, but I was told this was not so.)
If so, I cannot imagine how they got 6,000 people a night in that little corner of town. The news story says 400 spectators were refused admission “as every available space was taken,” including standing room only. “It was the first time the crowd has been beyond the capacity of the big field,” the story reported.
Around forty years ago, two new festivals began in Kerrville: the Texas Arts and Crafts Fair, and the Kerrville Folk Festival. Both began in 1972.
My friend Rod Kennedy gave me a remarkable document: the program from the first Texas State Arts & Crafts Fair (of which the first Kerrville Folk Festival was a part).
It is remarkable for many reasons: its words, pictures, and design evoke a spirit that thrived in this place that summer of 1972. From the welcoming letters printed on the front of the book from Governor Preston Smith, Schreiner Junior College and Preparatory School President, Sam Junkin, and the first Executive Director of the Arts & Crafts Fair, Phil Davis (of the Texas Tourist Development Agency), all the way to the list of exhibitors (including my dad and an old platen printing press) – you can tell that Kerrville was on the ball, making a difference for itself in the state. It’s refreshing to read the program, filled with its optimism and state public-relations department text.
The Fair was held for 6 days, starting on a Tuesday and running through Saturday, on the campus of Schreiner Institute. Admission was $1.00 for adults and 50 cents for children. Parking was free. Rod Kennedy produced the first Kerrville Folk Festival on June 1, 2, and 3 (Thursday through Saturday) at the Kerrville Municipal Auditorium, with a $2.50 per person admission. Other things were going on during the same time: Schreiner Institute offered a production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and the Hill Country Arts Foundation had a Neil Simon comedy, “Come Blow Your Horn.”
Some people might be surprised who was in the audience during the first year of the Kerrville Folk Festival: Lyndon Baines Johnson and his wife Lady Bird, along with UT Coach Darrell Royal.
Though the Texas Arts and Crafts Fair is undergoing a reimagining right now, the Kerrville Folk Festival remains as strong as ever.
I’m happy to see Comanche Trace continue in the long tradition of local festivals as they produce the 2nd Annual Texas Hill Country Wine & Brew Festival. Our community continues to be a great place to celebrate. Lyndon B and Lady Bird at first Kerrville Folk Festival West Texas Fair postcard.