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What came before SXSW? These jumbo Austin fests

They all filled the city with people, parties and traffic

Michael Barnes
For decades, Saengerfests were held in Austin and other Texas cities. In 1889, the competitors were welcomed to Congress Avenue for this precursor to SXSW. [Contributed]

South by Southwest has made such a profound impact on Austin and its culture that historians, journalists and everyday folks refer to life here in terms of “Before SXSW’ or “After SXSW.”

As in: “Before SXSW, South Congress Avenue was still a red light district with flop houses and not a single decent place to shop or dine.”

That’s not entirely true, but you get the point.

Asked to look into some precursors to SXSW, we came up with the following partial list of fests that brought city life to a temporary halt, not unlike SXSW this week, and, at the same time, attracted tourists from far and wide.

Saengerfest. A good number of German Americans settled in Austin. They brought with them the traditions of competitive musical festivals and, let's not forget, beer. Saengerfest in the late 19th century imported Texas singing societies and other music-makers to the state’s cities, including Austin, in numbers that stopped traffic and helped popularize Scholz Garten and the adjacent Saengerrund Hall, both still standing on San Jacinto Street. One particular Austin Saengerfest in 1879 for the first time included out-of-state ensembles and non-German speeches, signaling the event’s growing popularity with the larger community. Such displays faded during World War I — and again during World War II — when all things German were looked upon with suspicion or contempt.

St. John’s Encampment. Each summer during the early 20th century, the St. John Regular Baptist Association brought together more than 100 mostly rural African-American congregations who traveled on foot, on horseback or by wagon to the group’s land in what is now Northeast Austin. A June 2, 1916, article in the Statesman listed among the camp activities a rural school exhibit, truck growers exhibit, baby show, temperance show, parade and demonstrations. These meetings drew as many as 25,000 believers at a time when the total population of Austin was no more than 22,000. The orphanage and school supported by association closed in the 1940s and their grand Victorian building burned down in the 1950s, while the land ended up mainly in the St. John (alternately St. John’s) and Highland neighborhoods on both sides of Interstate 35. The association still operates out of a modernist building on Blessing Avenue.

Longhorns football games. The first University of Texas game was played in 1893, but the first hint at the future epic pageantry came in 1924 when UT Regent Henry Jacob Lutcher Stark, Athletic Director Theo Bellmont and other football-dazed backers built Memorial Stadium, which could accommodate tens of thousands of fans, many of them from out of town. National championships and bitter rivalries helped boost crowds, which eventually spilled out onto the surrounding city blocks for the pleasurable excesses of tailgating. There was a time not long ago when home games, which eventually attracted 100,000 fans when the Longhorns were doing well, blocked out every other activity in town. No event planner dared go up against the Longhorns. Ever.

UIL state championships. As early as 1910, the University Interscholastic League gathered top athletes, speakers, scholars, journalists and artists from every Texas high school for annual contests, at first on a very small scale for debates and declamations. Part of the ploy was to attract the best students to UT, but also because Austin is near the center of the state’s population, it made sense to bus the kids in large numbers to sites on or near campus. Eventually those numbers blew up. Remember when UIL boy’s state basketball tournaments meant no room for days at Austin-area inns? Now San Antonio has inherited that honor — “After SXSW” — and the football finalists gather in Arlington at Jerry World, otherwise known as AT&T Stadium. At least other events remain, including the one-act plays staged to the hilt by drama clubs at Bass Concert Hall.

Rodeo Austin. It started out small in 1940 as a livestock show on land across from the Capitol, but by the 1960s, the rodeo was one of the biggest shows in town. Folks from the surrounding countryside poured into the city and Congress Avenue was shut down for a Go Texan parade. Things calmed down after Rodeo Austin moved east to the Travis County Expo Center, but increasingly, its leaders have pushed for more visibility in Central Austin, including the Cowboy Breakfast, Rodeo Gala and, let's hope at some point, the return of the annual Trail Drive and culminating parade.

Austin Aqua Festival. How you feel about the former AquaFest based on Town Lake, now Lady Bird Lake, depends on your age, when you arrived in Austin, and probably what part of town you lived in at the time. Meant as a family-friendly community fest when founded in 1962, it included a nighttime boat parade, lakeside concerts and countless other activities. In 1985, estimated attendance at Aqua Fest peaked at 252,000. Not everyone felt welcome, however, and the crowds, traffic, trash and noise disrupted life downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods. Sound familiar? It was laid to rest in 1998, a little over 10 years “After SXSW.”

Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays. Although this track and field contest can trace its history to a 1925 meet in Memorial Stadium organized by Coach Clyde Littlefield, it did not become a big tourist attraction, especially for young African-Americans, and a cultural phenomenon until late in the 20th century. It is considered the second-largest track meet in the U.S. with more than 50,000 spectators, and the party radiates out in all directions. In a city where people of color often feel invisible, the annual event is a rare exception. This precursor to SXSW remains one of the highlights of Austin’s social season.


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