Driving down Main Street on the way to the Schulenburg Festival, it’s hard to tell the town is hosting “The National Party of Texas.” This annual celebration, complete with carnival rides, countrified sporting events, cookoffs, and live country music, has drawn town residents and former Schulenburgers of all ages from their homes and businesses as long as I can remember. This year my family, friends, and I returned after a decade-long hiatus to find a festival that wasn’t quite as festive as when we had left.
Schulenburg is a town of nearly three thousand, with one quarter of the population comprised of the descendants of German immigrants, and another quarter with Czech ancestry. As a kid, I came to the festival every year with my family, which traces its paternal roots back many generations to the immigrant communities that kept to the traditions of the motherland overseas while farming and ranching this place called Texas. As late as the forties, when my relatives were growing up here, grade school was a place where kids could be weaned off of the Czech and German they spoke on the farm.
Schulenburg, a community of stickers (the newspaper’s namesake), metallic-tasting water, and deep heritage, has suffered the same afflictions of many small towns, namely an exodus of younger generations to big cities and a resultant aging population. For many years this diaspora left citizens worried that the Schulenburg of the twenty-first century wouldn’t be much more than a graveyard for the Greatest Generation surrounded by faded historical markers. Luckily for Schulenburg, its placement on Interstate 10 between Houston and San Antonio has given it a badly needed shot in the arm, bringing gas- and food-hungry traffic through the city to sustain mom-and-pop businesses (raise your hand if you’ve ever picked up kolaches from the Kountry Bakery or eaten at Frank’s Place) while allowing a new Ford dealership to thrive.
This year, my first festival in about a decade, reflected this youthful spirit of financial turnover. But to my surprise, I found myself missing the good old days, riddled with town elders. In fact, perhaps Schulenburg’s abandoned Main Street meant that certain sectors of the community were staying in. The first sign that things had changed was an old-timer we passed along the way, who asked us, “You mean you’re going to that mess down there? Honestly? Really?”
We parked facing a white horse behind a wire fence that also held in an old boarded-up house and made our way to the Schulenburg Civic Center. The inside didn’t have the luster of its online photos, perhaps because the white walls seemed to completely absorb the already dim fluorescent lighting. A girl in a tiara talked with relatives in a far corner, while closer to the entrance, a woman held a bottle for a baby with one hand and herself nursed a Bud Light in the other.
Not recognizing anyone, our group abandoned the Civic Center for Wolters Park, where the main festival grounds were almost unrecognizable. The biggest letdown was readily apparent. Turner Hall, first built in 1886 and known locally as “Tri-Hall,” was once the heart of the festival, where kids slid shoeless on the dance floor while older ladies toured a self-made Bundt cake paradise. These days Tri-Hall, with its Alamo-esque façade and paint job that looks to have been carefully sanded to show age, is empty and locked, relinquishing its duties to the banal Civic Center and leaving a hot, bare parking lot where hundreds used to bustle to and from its doors.
We made our way across the lot, past a booth for Grizzly Snuff, a lone island on the asphalt proclaiming, “It’s THAT Good.” We arrived at Wolters Pavilion, a huge concrete foundation shaded by an even larger roof that served as the center of festivities. The speakers at the far end belted out lines that would make any live band at a local festival self-conscious: “When the sun is high in that Texas sky / I’ll be buckin’ at the county fair” from George Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning.” The Festival’s timing in the first week in every August, assures that the sun will always be high enough in that Texas sky to cure any human with a chronic dearth of lower back sweat. The pavilion itself, beyond food and drink vendors, was nearly deserted. Not a single person raised their hands in the air along with the band.
I bought a turkey leg, charred and tasty as anybody could hope for, from the Lions Club, and sat down on the pavilion’s picnic tables while my companions enjoyed the Lions’ sausage wraps. I surveyed the vendors, who were busier drinking beer than selling it, as the band leader, surprisingly upbeat considering his audience, called out, “You gotta get a cold beer. And it warms up here, so drink it fast. And then go get another cold beer! And the cycle continues …”
As we left the pavilion and headed for the carnival rides, we were asked to step into an area cordoned off with twine to judge the chili contest. A woman with an unquestionably authentic beehive hairdo encouraged us. Even if I hadn’t been stuffed with meat already, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable making such weighty judgments. In years past, these hallowed tables welcomed only the most intimidating connoisseurs. Now they wanted me? We politely declined and moved on.
Walking through the park, we finally found where everyone was. Half of the property had been turned into a giant contiguous tailgate party, where Schulenburgers past and present lounged in the shade of trees and portable blue canopies. The barriers between various family enclaves were apparent; each area was marked by its own distinctive mix of beer, covered dishes, and Jimmy Buffet rotations. Some groups even had signs (“Trina’s Tiki Bar” announced itself on painted hanging wood). Apparently in the ten years I had been gone, the festival had evolved from a communal daytime activity to a jovial nocturnal gathering that left people sequestered with their own families and friends during the day.
Disenchanted, we headed over to the old American Legion Building, where the impending judging of the barbecue cookoff was sure to be ruined by the unmistakable same sour smell that has been sealed in every old Central Texas building since time immemorial. However, in this quiet room, with all the plates and silverware laid out, there was a real sense of history. I saw my grandpa’s name gracefully written (certainly not by him, as he had a fourth-grade education) on the charter membership roll of this post, and for a moment I longed to experience a time when there was a greater sense of community, when people living hard lives banded together for a greater purpose before time’s march resumed and the fantasy was largely forgotten, to be supplanted by more modern ones.
The next day’s festivities, complete with a parade of old cars and costumed children (and games like the cow chip toss that I hope far outlive me) were brighter and more nostalgic. In truth, the festival’s recent transformation is far from a tragedy in the modern sense of the word. But part of the unique magic of this festival has disappeared, at least from the eyes of this San Antonian. I will faithfully visit Fayette County for the rest of my life, swinging by for kolaches or stopping for a rare visit to my grandparents’ graves. I wonder how they would feel.