In 1984 Jerry Bielke and his family moved to a small community about a half hour’s drive from Austin, a place where life was quiet and the fishing was good. But at 71, Jerry was no idle guy looking to fish out the rest of his days (though that was what he spent much of his time doing).
Jerry, who came to Texas via California, had previously worked as a recreational director, made neon signs, and built dome homes. He was, as his son Ike puts it, “always into something.” The untouched expanses of his new home, Dripping Springs, were fertile ground for someone with ideas, and Jerry had big ones. He first created the 290 Playhouse, a children’s theater that he ran for two years in between selling minnows out of his specialty home tank. He helped create Founder’s Park, which preserved one of the town’s original homesteads. He became the town’s first sign commissioner.
Then, Jerry had an idea that would cement his legacy in the town forever, one that would continue to give Dripping Springs a moment of small town bliss thirty years later, after Jerry had passed and the ranch land and rolling hills of his adopted home had been replaced with HEB, Home Depot, and seemingly endless master-planned communities.
The dream seemed simple enough. Jerry wanted a chicken cook-off, and he wanted it on Mercer Street, the town’s historic main road. Folks would gather, cook chicken, eat, and listen to music. He named his fledgling project Founder’s Day, in honor of the pioneers that settled the land in 1854. Starting with close friends, Jerry drummed up community participation in getting Founder’s Day off the ground, promising any proceeds would benefit local businesses and nonprofits. But Jerry’s scope was far beyond Dripping Springs. He wanted the entire state involved.
To spread the word, Jerry had the Lions Club, which were the biggest supporters of the festival, make him a full-body chicken suit. Armed with the suit and pamphlets, Jerry, his son Ike, and Ike’s wife drove their 1955 red Chevy panel truck to towns across the state. They started in nearby locales such as Wimberley, Driftwood, Buda, Kyle, and Lockhart, but went so far as San Antonio, Houston, and Lubbock.
“Every weekend we were gone. Every weekend,” says Ike, remembering the questions he asked his father each time they headed out. “Where are we going this time? What’s the name of this town? Why are we going way up there?”
About 40 teams made cook tents and participated in the inaugural cook-off in 1988. Visitors ate chicken, listened to live music, and rooster-called and clucked their way across the main stage. Although Ike says there were around 400 people that year, the city estimates there were around 1,500. Regardless of the number, those first visitors came from all over Texas. Jerry had achieved his goal: he had brought the community together, and he had put Dripping Springs on everyone’s radar. “He promoted his whole life,” Ike says. “He was always putting Dripping, anything, on the map.”
Now, the Founder’s Day Festival attracts over 5,000 visitors to Dripping Springs every April. There are over 120 teams, all competing to place in the margarita, brisket, pork rib, salsa, chili, and the original chicken competitions, which are judged by the Dripping Springs Cook Off Club, originally created for the sole purpose of managing the competitions for the festival. Food vendors and arts-and-crafts booths pack the rest of the open space on the street. The traveling Mighty Thomas Carnival temporarily dwarfs City Hall at the west end of Mercer. Street dances go long into the night Friday and Saturday.
Jerry, the Founder’s Day impresario, would have no doubt loved to have this growth attributed to the success of the festival alone. But much of the credit is due to the rapid expansion of Austin, which is quickly encroaching the once still Hill Country.
Mercer Street lies one block over from U.S. Highway 290, where most of the traffic flows between Austin and Johnson City, Fredericksburg, and beyond. In the 1990s and early 2000s, this stretch of highway had a Dairy Queen, a Shell Gas Station with a Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen inside, and a Taco Bell. Even those few chains would have been a shock to Jerry, who passed away in 1989. When he moved to Dripping Springs, the town had 366 official residents. Ike remembers a feed store, a grocery store—which perished after the construction of HEB—a gas station, two restaurants, and the historic buildings supporting small businesses on Mercer. Since the last census in 2010, the town has grown to a population of 1,788.
On its face, that count is hardly big potatoes. But the extraterritorial jurisdiction closing in on Dripping Springs is home to nearly 30,000 people—bearing part of the crush of people pouring into the Austin area who are willing to deal with an hour and a half commute. And that number’s only going up.
Seven master-planned communities have been developed in and around Dripping Springs. The first of its kind for the town, Belterra, is expanding to its limit of 2,000 homes. Its surrounding developments—Ledgestone, Highpointe, and Saratoga Hills—add over 1,500 properties. A few miles west of Belterra lies the newer Caliterra, a name that seems to cater to many of the transplants’ home state. Whereas Belterra and its developments lie in the extraterritorial jurisdiction, parts of Caliterra actually make it within Dripping Springs city limits. It joins Harrison Hills, Founder’s Ridge, and Arrowhead Ranch, which have all been built in the last three years, each of which has anywhere from 100 to 400 homes. Headwaters at Barton Creek, which just sneaks into the Dripping Springs city limits, has over 1,500 new homes, and Anarene Development, which will add 1,600 homes, is currently under construction.
But in or outside of Dripping Springs proper, these communities, which dwarf the original neighborhoods, will all feed into Dripping Springs ISD, repeatedly marked as one of the best school systems in the area. In and the through the 2000s, the district had a typical small town hierarchy—one elementary, one middle, and one high school. Now, the district has four elementary schools feeding into one middle school and one high school, with construction beginning on an additional elementary school and a second middle school, both of which are scheduled to open this fall.
For now, these master-planned communities offer perhaps the same thing Jerry saw in Dripping Springs in the eighties: the ideal of small town living just outside the Austin metropolis. But that is quickly disappearing. The population surge has only brought in other developments of the less homegrown variety. In 2008, a local funeral home service sold its plot to Walgreens, and seemingly overnight that red cursive W spelled out Dripping Springs’ future aesthetic—tan sandstone, concrete, and the all-too-familiar shades of neon orange, golden yellow, and dark green of America’s chain corporations.
Two years later, ranch land that had once showed off the Hill Country landscape became an HEB and a Home Depot, which are now two of the top employers in town. A Whataburger followed, and Chase Bank joined the town’s ten other banks and credits unions. The golden arches of America’s fast food behemoth eventually popped up. And a small shopping center built last year now boasts the discomforting trio of TCBY, Schlotzsky’s, and an urgent care center. But the kiss of death to small town charm came when a Starbucks opened in February, sharing a building with Jack Brown Cleaners. This stretch of 290, from Austin to Dripping Springs, has turned from ranchland and oak trees to concrete lots, self-storage units, and small strip malls. The separation between city and small town “country” life is disappearing more each day.
Mercer Street is arguably the last section of Dripping Springs where the town keeps its “just West of Weird” mantra—no chains have crept in, and the city has put in serious effort to dress it up as the historic district. Before the boom, it struggled to give the average passerby, or even residents, a reason to stop by. But the street saw a resurgence of business in 2012, with places like Mazama Coffee Co. and the Barbershop bar opening.
Jerry’s insistence on the location for the original Founder’s Day, then, seems now like it was a premonition of sorts. Though increased traffic shoots through the area daily, Founder’s Day remains the main reason that many residents come to Mercer. “I see kids that my kids went to school with that I haven’t seen in forever,” says Brenda Medcalf, who has been chair of the Founder’s Day Commission since 2008. “I see other people in town that I never see.”
Even in Jerry’s time, the festival acted as a homecoming event, drawing not only new people from all over the state, but those that had left Dripping Springs. That spirit is now amplified. For many, this event remains one of the last slivers of small-town life, which is one of the reasons why veteran cook tent owners keep coming back. This is especially true for booth owners Brent Cummings and Mark McBrearty, who got into the Festival because of their children.
“Having a place where the kids could go see their friends and go to the carnival and all that, having a place where you could camp out with your chairs, have some shade, that was the draw,” Cummings says. “It’s become a lot more than that.”
Outside of the slew of cooking contests, booths also jockey for places in categories of Best Camp, Best Showmanship, and Best Pit. For the committed, and most are, the weekend is a lot of work. Every April, Cummings and McBrearty assess the pile of cedar posts, screws, tin, wire, and zip ties lying in McBrearty’s front lawn. Those materials comprise their booth, “Trail Driver” (named after the street they both live on), which they have run for 21 years. Each year, they think of packing it up for good. Maybe send it up in a cloud of smoke. But even as the years have turned into decades, the kids having gone and those cedar posts getting heavier every April, Cummings and McBrearty don’t dare give up their spot, else they may never get it back.
“People get a good space and they keep it,” says Ginger Faught, the deputy city administrator. The new residents moving into those master-planned communities want in on the action, and many of these young families are eager to give their kids the “small town” experience they sought out in Dripping Springs. But over the three decades after they first staked claims to their tent spots in, families have preserved their prime positions by passing their festival booths on to the next generation—sons and daughters that grew up running around Mercer now man the cook tents and participate in the competitions. It seems at once a means of preserving what once was and fighting off what could be.
“The city’s working to try to keep that small town feel that Dripping Springs has, and has attracted so many people to here,” Faught says. “The festival is certainly one of those hometown events that helps keep that spirit alive.”
Veteran cooks and people like Ike will tell you the festival, like the town, has changed over the years. The increased number of cook tents clog Mercer from morning to well past midnight all weekend. Some grumbling comes from booth designers like McBrearty, whose booths are more “brick-and-mortar” and themed accordingly, compared to the newer ones, which often consist of pop-up tents and blue tarps, marked off with white picket fences and decorated with pink flamingos.
Ike, who stopped getting involved with the festival after his father’s death but still attends every year, embraces the changes, mainly because he has yet to see any hostile activity from anyone. “There’s a few newcomers that come now that don’t [like the festival],” says Ike. “But they probably just don’t enjoy life anymore.”
And while the carnival did move from the east side of the street to the west, and the booths may look a little different, overall the city has not changed the festival much, and has no plans to. For residents that have seen the entire area undergo massive change, Founder’s weekend has been kept largely the same. To celebrate its thirtieth anniversary this weekend, the Grand Parade that kicks off the festival Friday evening is themed “30 Things We Love About Drippin’.” This will be the only change that the parade, which often calls to the town’s farming and ranching roots, has seen in three decades. “Everybody in Dripping Springs [has] a reason to have somebody on a float,” McBrearty says.
“If you [have] a pig or a goat or a horse, you’re out there dragging it down the road,” Cummings adds.
Farm animals, last-second floats, band kids squinting in the sun as they walk down Mercer— that recalls Jerry’s original vision for the Founder’s Day festival. The new generation establishes themselves, while the older kick back and talk with people they haven’t seen in ages. Cooks share food with one another, their family, friends, and complete strangers, working for tips only. The neon signs a block away are obscured by clouds of pit smoke, the traffic and developers on 290 forgotten. And the veterans like McBrearty will keep coming back, even with the changes. “It’s still good,” he says. “ It’s better than anything else that’s out there.”
The thirtieth anniversary of the Founder’s Day Festival takes place April 21 – 23 in Dripping Springs.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article included inaccurate figures about Dripping Springs’ master-planned communities. We regret the error.