TEXAS (KAMR/KCIT) — From pumpkins to local harvests, heritage, music, art, and holidays such as Día de los Muertos, most communities around Texas bid farewell to summer and aim for a festive fall season with classic festivals and fairs.
However, some festivals just can’t be found anywhere else than in some specific corners of the Lone Star State. Whether you’re a tourist in Texas or a born-and-raised local, there are a number of events in the upcoming weeks that can offer a particularly funky fall experience.
Here are a few of them, as well as how they got to be a thing in the first place.
Bigfoot Conference – Jefferson
The Lone Star State is home to rocky beaches, wide plains, deep canyons, thick forests, rolling hills, and thousands of years’ worth of legends and mysteries. Creatures including el chupacabra, the Goatman, the Wampus Cat (and whatever that thing was that one time in Amarillo) have been subject to sighting and speculation throughout Texas history, but few have reached the same level of notoriety as Bigfoot.
Since 2001, the adventurous and cryptically curious have been welcomed each fall to the annual Bigfoot Conference in the proclaimed “Bigfoot Capital of Texas.”
However, that won’t be Bigfoot, Texas in Frio County. Instead, both the title and the event are claimed by Jefferson, much farther northeast amid the thick forests around Caddo Lake.
As noted by Jefferson and the Texas Bigfoot Research Center, published Bigfoot sightings in Texas can be dated back to at least as early as 1924. While the cryptid has had reported sightings in Texas from the Rio Grande to Palo Duro Canyon, most of them have been in East Texas. The Texas Bigfoot Research Center, which is also located in Jefferson, framed the land around Caddo Lake as “a land of Bigfoot.”
While the Bigfoot Conference has been running since 2001, Jefferson Mayor Carey Heaster, Jr. issued a proclamation in 2018 declaring Jefferson to be the “Official Bigfoot Capital of Texas.”
Mermaid Capital of Texas Fest – San Marcos
While the Mermaid Capital of Texas Fest in San Marcos will only celebrate its seventh year in 2023, its history dates back over 70 years to the now-defunct Aquarena Springs amusement park. As previously reported on MyHighPlains.com, Aquarena Springs opened in 1951 and featured a number of memorable attractions and curiosities, including “mermaid” performers who could be seen from the site’s iconic submarine theater.
While the amusement park closed in the 1990s and was officially dismantled in 2012, the legacy of Aquarena Springs and its “Aquamaids” lived on. Combined with the history of San Marcos intrinsically tied to the Edwards Aquifer and the San Marcos River, the community adopted the mermaid as a local symbol and mascot and went on to form the Mermaid Society of Texas in 2016.
Now also known officially as the “Mermaid Capital of Texas” as of 2021, San Marcos now holds the Mermaid Capital of Texas Fest on Sept. 24 as part of “Mermaid Month,” focused both on mermaid-themed promotions as well as educational events about river guardianship and conservation.
RipFest – Eastland
In 1897, Eastland County was preparing to place a cornerstone for its new courthouse. The stone, functioning essentially as a time capsule for the community, contained a small vault that was filled with coins, several newspapers, a note, a Bible – and a Texas horned lizard named Blinky, who had been collected by the County Clerk’s four-year-old son. As noted by Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine, Blinky was placed into the capsule to test a theory that horned lizards could live up to 100 years in hibernation.
According to the Eastland Chamber of Commerce, the cornerstone was opened 31 years later when the courthouse was being demolished in favor of a newer, larger model. According to published reports and local historians, multiple area officials were present in 1928 for the capsule opening to try and avoid any trickery. The county judge at the time held up the unearthed Blinky to the crowd and declared that he was alive, with witnesses in the crowd reporting seeing the wriggling lizard in the judge’s hand. There has been an ongoing argument ever since regarding whether or not the lizard was replaced with a live animal at the time of the capsule opening.
The horned lizard was renamed “Old Rip,” for Rip Van Winkle, and rose to a height of popularity in the ensuing months. Eastland officials took the lizard on a tour of the United States that they said included a stop in Washington D.C. to meet with President Calvin Coolidge.
After Old Rip’s death, Eastland officials had him embalmed and placed in a red velvet-lined box to lie in state in the courthouse lobby. The Eastland Chamber of Commerce said that the lizard lost a limb in 1962 when, in a historical Texas gaff, then-gubernatorial candidate John Connally hoisted him by a mummified hind leg amid a photo opportunity, which promptly broke off. Further, Old Rip was “toad-napped” in the 1970s and held for ransom by a person who allegedly claimed to have been part of the Old Rip conspiracy. Somewhat ironically, yet another argument broke out regarding whether Old Rip was ever truly returned to Eastland County Courthouse, or if the lizard – whom some already argued was an imposter of the 1897 original — was a replacement, adding another layer to the conversation around the idea of a horned lizard hoax.
While the debate over the legitimacy of Old Rip has never been settled, the “Old Rip Oath” is still taken by locals every February, and “RipFest” — among Eastland’s most iconic celebrations — is held every October to celebrate the community and its beloved horny toad.
I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of Old Rip Promoter, and will to the best of my ability, promote, protect and defend to death the Truth of the Story of Old Rip.The Old Rip Oath
The Great Texas Mosquito Festival – Clute
On the Gulf Coast directly south of Houston, visitors and locals alike can expect to find a few things: Picturesque wildlife refuges, lively beaches, stifling humidity, and mosquitos.
Sometimes, such as in the case of the community of Clute, a mosquito standing 26 feet tall.
While he doesn’t reach the heights of his other looming Lone Star brethren, such as Big Tex in Dallas and Tex Randall in Canyon, Willie-Man-Chew still claims the title of the world’s largest mosquito mascot and tips his hat to visitors to Clute Municipal Park in the last days of July every year.
According to the festival organizers, otherwise known as the “SWAT” Team, the Great Texas Mosquito Festival began in 1981 as a way to promote tourism to the Clute area. Standing as one of the more iconic instances in Texas of a community viewing a prevalent pest with a sense of humor, the festival has garnered a literal swarm of publicity throughout its four-decade existence from residents, tourists, travel writers, and even a Texas reading textbook.
The festival also features unique events that match its mosquito mascot, including the “Mosquito Calling” and the “Mosquito Legs” contests.
Texas Gatorfest – Anahuac
Whether they’re based on mythical creatures, cryptids, horny toads, or swarming ‘skeeters, Texas communities love to host events focused on their local mascots. However, in Anahuac, the celebration is less about a particular lizard and instead about the neighbors that outnumber the local humans nearly three to one.
Anahuac began its annual Texas Gatorfest in 1989, the same year that the State Legislature designated the community as the official “Alligator Capital of Texas.”
The designation shouldn’t be a surprise since Anahuac and its historic Fort Anahuac Park are settled at the mouth of the Trinity River and Lake Anahuac, amid an area noted by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to have one of among the highest concentrations of American alligators in the Lone Star State.
As described by the festival organizers, the event and its “Great Texas Alligator Roundup” coincide with the opening of the 20-day core habitat alligator season in Texas. Meanwhile, while hunters are able to bring in their “harvest” from the season and compete for cash prizes in the roundup, the Alligator Education Tent is also set up to provide information and awareness focused on the alligator and the coastal wetlands of Texas.
Altogether, the community of Anahuac has promoted the festival to celebrate its people as well as its wildlife, bringing in funding as well as raising awareness for its attractions alongside its wildlife refuges, historical sites, rare animals, and scaly neighbors.
Gatesville Old Time Fiddlers Contest – Gatesville
Texas-style old-time fiddling is often referred to as one of the most distinctive styles of traditional folk fiddling, with its origins tracing back to before the Civil War and standing as a major force in the evolution of American folk music and bluegrass. Whether it be more well-known leaders in the style like Alexander Campbell “Eck” Robertson or Terry Morris, or otherwise unknown local artists like Marvin McCracken, Texas fiddlers have been staples of their communities for at least as long as there has been a Lone Star State to speak of.
With that, towns around Texas join with the Texas Old Time Fiddlers Association to hold gatherings and events for the unique fiddling style throughout the year, including the Gatesville Old Time Fiddlers Contest.
The Texas Old Time Fiddlers Association and historical publications noted that the association started holding these events around the time of its founding in 1973, with the aim of promoting and preserving Texas-style fiddling as a unique and historic art form. However, fiddle contests in Texas can be traced at least back to the Texas Fiddlers Contest and Reunion in 1932, as detailed by the Texas State Historical Association.
After making a return to Gatesville in 2019, as reported by the city, the Gatesville Old Time Fiddlers Contest has been held annually in September. Among other contests of its ilk, the event in the Spur Capital of Texas draws competitors from around the state and the country to compete for cash prizes, connect with others, and participate in other events.
Other unique Texas fall fiddling contests around the state, as scheduled by the TOTFA, include the 87th World Championship Fiddlers Festival in Crockett, the Chicken & Bread Days Fiddlers Contest in Bowie, and the J Box Roberts Memorial Fiddle Contest in Seguin.
More information about Texas-style fiddling and its related events around the Lone Star State can be found here.
Horsehead Crossing Celebration – Crane
One of the few affordable points on the Pecos River before the 1900s, Horsehead Crossing in Pecos County was still known for its steep, muddy banks, quicksand, unpredictable currents, and briny water. While it stood as a ‘better-than-nothing’ option for travelers and cattlemen, the path was littered with the skeletons of livestock and beasts of burden, and eventually named for the horse skulls reportedly decorating the nearby mesquite trees.
The Pecos and its Horsehead Crossing was even once described by iconic Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight, as noted by the TSHA, as the “graveyard of the cowman’s hopes.”
Still, from the 16th through the 19th centuries, Horsehead Crossing stood as a necessary part of numerous trails that were significant players in the development of Texas and the West, including the Comanche War Trail, the Emigrant Trail, the Butterfield Overland Stage, and the Goodnight-Loving Trail (as memorialized, noted Pecos County, in the “Lonesome Dove” mini-series).
While the first official Horsehead Crossing Celebration was held by the Pecos County Historical Commission in 2020, it brought renewed attention to the historic site previously only recognized by its installed state historical marker from 1936. The PCHC and some other Texas historians consider the site as one of the most iconic and influential in the history of the Lone Star State.
As detailed on the PCHC’s website, the commission and Goodnight-Loving Trail, Inc. plan to host the “Spirits of the River” living history event amid the celebration in 2023. Further, the event is expected to involve live cannon fire and reenactors, chuckwagon meals and contests, camping, cowboy poetry, a gunslinger shootout, and Comanche dancers and drummers.
Hoodoo Mural Festival – Amarillo
While it is another newer festival around Texas, Amarillo’s Hoodoo Mural Festival has become a unique staple of the Yellow City since its debut in 2019. The outdoor festival features music performances and vendors, and centers around celebrating the completion of an urban beautification project created in partnerships with local businesses and mural artists from both the area and across the US.
As detailed by organizers, the Hoodoo Art Foundation began the festival with the aim of inspiring communities to unite through public art, urban beautification, and creativity. The foundation aims to create a walkable, drivable art gallery in the city showcasing underrepresented and student artists.
In 2023, the festival’s lineup includes 14 muralists who have participated in the project and 20 musicians. The murals created for and debuted during the festival are part of a larger beautification movement throughout Amarillo and are featured in the Downtown Amarillo Scavenger Hunt as an interactive attraction for the community.
This movement has been another iconic entry in an ever-growing and longstanding Amarillo tradition: art installations. The Yellow City not only has its evolving mural collection and famous installations such as Cadillac Ranch, but is also home to a horse statue scavenger hunt and the road sign project from the Dynamite Museum, which was at one point known as the largest urban art project in the world.
While these festivals are certainly not the only ones in Texas that range from the hilarious to the historical, they are unique to their communities — and hopefully act as examples that encourage exploring and interacting with the Lone Star State, no matter the season.