Tag: festivals

Celtic Highland Games: A Community of Strong(wo)men

By Breanna Luna, Larisa Manescu and Jared Wynne

We’ve all heard of weightlifting, bodybuilding and Crossfit. In the past decade, intensive athletic programs such as these have experienced a surge of interest from men and women looking to test the limits of their physical and mental strength.

But how often do you hear of the Highland Games?

Mike Baab participates in the caber toss at the Austin Celtic Festival on Oct 19. In 2005, Baab won the Masters World Championship in the 45-49 age class. Photo by Jared Wynne.

Mike Baab participates in the caber toss at the Austin Celtic Festival on Oct 19. In 2005, Baab won the Masters World Championship in the 45-49 age class.
Photo by Jared Wynne.

Traditionally, Highland Games are events held throughout the year in Scotland and other countries to celebrate Scottish heritage and culture, particularly that of the Scottish Highlands. While other activities are often part of the festivities, the heavy sporting events are the most emblematic.

At the annual Austin Celtic Festival, held on Oct. 18-19 this year, a swelling crowd gathered around the heavy athletics competition to watch male and female athletes grunt and shout in frustration and exhalation as they attempted to best each other and their own personal best records. Although Highland Games can consist of a variety of different heavy sporting events, this particular festival featured the caber toss and the weight over the bar.

The Texas Celtic Athletic Association (TCAA) is demonstrative of the reach of the Highland Games, as they have  made their way from Scotland to the Lone Star State.


States and provinces in North America hosting Highland Games competitions.

After seeing Highland Games at a Renaissance fair 11 years ago, Brittney Boswell became the first woman to officially compete in Texas. As the current Secretary of TCAA, Boswell said that many women at the time hadn’t yet realized competing was an option for them, as they had no examples to follow.

“Celtic societies and organization like (TCAA) are a big push for family involvement. When these guys come out and they bring their wives and girlfriends and daughters, it’s an opportunity for these girls to get a foot in the door,” Boswell said.

Over the years, this type of foster system within the organization has opened up the opportunity to maintain regular women’s classes and a consistent stream of 10 to 18 female athletes throwing at any given event over the past several years.

Brittney Boswell (right), the first woman to compete in Highland Games in Texas 11 years ago, offers advice to a fellow athlete before the weight over bar event.

Brittney Boswell (right), the first woman to compete in Highland Games in Texas, offers advice to a fellow athlete before the weight over bar event.
Photo by Larisa Manescu.

TCAA holds weekly practices in both North and Central Texas. Those looking to go the extra mile practice multiple times each week, in addition to spending plenty of time in the weight room to increase their strength.

Some athletes, like TCAA’s founder and president Duncan McCallum, have garnered a long list of achievements and titles as amateurs. McCallum has competed in Norway, Canada and each American state with the excepting Hawaii and Alaska.

Despite the competitive nature of the sport, the success of the organization depends on a tight-knit community and system of mentoring. Five years ago, McCallum was trained by Athletic Director Mike Baab, a University of Texas at Austin alumnus and former professional football player who turned to Highland Games after an 11-year NFL career.

“If there’s a Highland Games Hall of Fame, (Mike Babb) is going to end up in it. He taught me, and I taught some of these folks and they taught some of the other folks,” McCallum said. “So any chance to get out here and have time with Mike and these other cats is just a lot of fun.”

It was Baab who, along with other veterans of the Highland Games events, initially encouraged Boswell to attend games and compete as the only woman in the field.

A week before games, Baab generally runs a clinic so that those new to the sport can get their competitive jitters out of the way and begin to understand how to go about conquering each event. Additionally, events like the Austin Celtic Festival have an open-door policy when it comes to Highland Games so that anyone with the will can try their hand at competing.

A web developer by trade, Mike Beech first discovered the games in 2011 while looking for new and different experiences. Drawn to the idea of doing charitable work in Texan communities while promoting the competitions  he’d grown to love, he joined TCAA three years ago. As a member, he has helped to advance the organization’s web presence and promote the sport in the state of Texas and beyond. Beech is now the president and executive director of TCAA, no small feat for a father of two young boys.

Beech said he’s always amazed at the commitment put into the organization by both the athletes and their supportive families.

“I often find myself in awe of some of our athletes who persevere and succeed in Highland Games in spite of their demanding lives and schedules,” Beech said.

Unlike Boswell, who discovered her love for the sport without any previous athletic experience, Beech was a baseball player in high school and a nationally-ranked fencer during and after college.

He insists that he can’t overstate the value of community that TCAA brings to his life and the sense of reward he feels from doing charitable work with fellow members.

“When you grow up playing team sports, there is a point at which most of us have to stop. The lucky few can continue on and make a career out of it, but most of us grow up and miss the sense of camaraderie that comes with playing on a team,” Beech said.While Highland Games is an individual sport, TCAA has given me the chance to be on a team again.”

The involvement of the Celtic community, like the support of local business Things Celtic, allows TCAA to grow. In turn, the organization puts on a good show, and the athletes, their families and the general public bring money to Celtic festivals and events. But while the sport provides entertainment for festival visitors, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a significant presence in the athletic arena. Some of the best athletes in the world get paid to travel and compete in Highland Games.

I’m sure a lot of sports on the fringe feel this way, but I believe Highland Games is ready for the big stage. We have the athletic feats and personalities to entertain millions,” Beech said.

                                           Higland Games at Austin Celtic Festival from Breanna on Vimeo.

Oktoberfest Season: A Spotlight on German-Texan culture

By Breanna Luna, Larisa Manescu and Jared Wynne

Song after song, Bill Holden exercises his polka and waltz skills with a new partner. He’s been dancing for 47 years, and here on the dance floor he’s in his element. Holden wears a name tag identifying him as a Wurstfest Grosse Opa, a honorary title that the Wurstfest Association gave him last year for his loyalty, dedication and willingness to participate.

Clad in a green Bavarian hat dotted with pins, a red vest and lederhosen, Holden may seem hard to miss. But his appearance is far from unique in the beer garden.


Dancers crowd the floor as live polka music fills the beer garden. Wurstfest member and Senior Opa Bill Holden, has been dancing for 46 years. Holden said he first began dancing in seventh grade, when his parents sent him to the Arthur Murray Dance Studio located in Austin, Texas. Photo by Larisa Manescu.

Dancers crowd the floor as live polka music fills the beer garden at the Oktoberfest Festival on Oct. 4 in Fredericksburg, Texas. Wurstfest Association member Bill Holden first began dancing in the seventh grade, when his parents sent him to the Arthur Murray Dance Studio located in Austin, Texas.
Photo by Larisa Manescu.


On October 3-5, the weekend of the Oktoberfest festival in Fredericksburg, Texas, over 20,000 people showed up for the 34th celebration of German-Texan heritage and culture. People of all ages donned traditional dirndls and lederhosen, and there was no shortage of beer waiting for them. But the annual festival represents more than an opportunity for excessive drinking.

In addition to dancing to a variety of live bands at one of the three beer gardens, activities at Oktoberfest include stilt walking, indulging in traditional German dishes like bratwurst, potato pancakes and schnitzel, and participating in a stein-holding competition. There’s also a carnival area for the children, and various local artisans and food vendors put their products on display in tents.

Photo by Breanna Luna.

Eins, zwei, drei, g’suffa! (One, two, three, drink up!)
Photo by Breanna Luna.


While some attendees may be curious first-time visitors to the festival, many have significant ties to the German heritage community in Texas.

Festival attendee Gene Hackemack has been playing German and Czech music since the late 1970s. His business card is labeled “Gene Hackemack’s Oompah Musik” and states, “Have Squeezebox [Accordion] – Will Travel.” While plays at a variety of German and Czech festivals like Oktoberfest, and he has the right background for it. His great-great grandfather arrived in Galveston, Texas from Germany on June 4, 1854, and his family spoke Texas German, a dying dialect, until the 1960s.

Hackemack also claims membership to a variety of German cultural groups, such as the Winedale German Singers, the Texas German Society and Hermann Sons, a fraternal insurance organization that was exclusively for the early German settlers in Texas but is now open to anyone who wants to join.

It is not uncommon to walk up to an Oktoberfest attendee and discover that he or she is heavily involved in a German band, organization or another Oktoberfest festival occurring in Texas. For example, several committee members involved with the planning of Wurstfest, a 10-day celebration of German culture in New Braunfels, Texas in November, frequent Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg in their outfits.

The planning that goes into the festival is extensive and the local community is heavily involved. Oktoberfest festival manager Debbie Farquhar and her group of chairs have meetings with all City departments, such as the police and fire department, who she said are always fully aware of the plans and eager to help.

Although no official study has been done to quantify how much money the festival generates for the town, Farquhar said that the economic impact is evident.

“Lodging was fully booked, retailers love it, restaurants had waiting lists, gas stations had their share and my list could go on,” Farquhar said.

As soon as the festival is over, debriefings among the Oktoberfest Advisory committee occur and ideas for next year’s festival are already being generated.

Oktoberfest Season in Texas from Breanna on Vimeo.

Other similar festivals have sprung up around Central Texas, with each looking to take advantage of the season and contribute to the maintaining of German culture in the region. One such festival in Austin goes by the name of AustOberfest. After a successful debut in 2013, the second annual event was held on Sep. 27 of this year.

Austin Saengerrunde, a traditional German choral singing society and the oldest ethnic organization in Austin, hosts the newly established festival. Brian Michalk, the organization’s president, said that the event had more than doubled in size in terms of visitors since it was first held one year ago.

“We’re very happy with the growth,” Michalk said.

Preparations for a large festival in the heart of Austin require planning far in advance. AustOberfest staff begin work for the event six months in advance, making contact with potential sponsors and vendors and advising city officials of potential traffic disruptions. AustOberfest organizers would one day like to be able to close down additional streets around their location at 1607 San Jacinto Blvd.

Miletus Callahan-Barile, Saengerrunde’s facilities director, emphasized the positive effect that such a festival can have on the regional vendors who participate.

“We support local Austin businesses and local hill country business,” Callahan-Barile said. “It’s not just music, beer, and good times; it’s also the food, and the food is very important.”

Even so, Callahan-Barile did acknowledge the importance of offering strong entertainment value to visitors at a festival. And Michalk was sure to point out that arranging all of the assorted entertainments on offer isn’t cheap.

“Budgeting is always difficult for something like this,” Michalk said.

While the available budget does grow for a festival as the event becomes larger, the desire for bigger and better fare and fun isn’t easily sated. And so it is that AustOberfest organizers have already begun to consider how to go about funding a 2015 event that will outdo this year’s.

But for all of the planning that must go into these festivals and others like them in Central Texas, the mission remains the same: bringing German culture to local residents and showing them a good time.

A few of the season's main festivals in Central Texas.

A few of the season’s main festivals in Central Texas.


Final Year of West x West Campus


“Dudeman” photo by Britni Shaw

By Elyana Barrera, Chelsea Bass
Bryce Gibson and Britini Shaw

In the middle of West Campus’s labyrinth of high-rise apartment complexes and just weeks before Austin’s massive South By Southwest Conference, students and young locals gathered for the fifth West By West Campus festival. Showcasing filmmakers and artists, the block party with a do-it-yourself attitude was hosted by cooperative housing groups on Feb. 21-22.

Started in February of 2010, the festival began as a way for underaged bands and concertgoers to celebrate with their own all-ages free shows according to director Tessa Hunt. Now in it’s final year, West By West Campus has grown to include a film festival portion where eight short films submission are chosen and then judged by a panel on day one of the festival.

The heart of the festival, however, remains to be its second day music portion, where 36 bands played at co-ops, starting at noon and ending at 10:30 p.m. Cooperative housing French House, 21st Street Co-op and Pearl Street Co-op were the three venues hosting musical talent including Super Thief, Magna Carda and the Numerators. The vibrant, bohemian interiors of the co-ops, along with do-it-yourself zine-style posters served as an apt backdrop to West By West Campus’s engaged yet cool crowd.

From looking at the abundant amount of people enjoying live music at the festival, it would be impossible to tell that lack of funds almost kept West By West Campus from happening this year. Usually paid for out-of-pocket by founders of the event, the cost of hosting along with permits and port-a-potties, became a problem that needed to be solved. Jennifer Gritti, social media/donations/strategy manager for West By West Campus, saw a solution in starting a “kickstarter.”

“We decided to fund the event through kickstarter so we didn’t have to deal with corporate sponsors,” Gritti said. “Not only did corp. sponsors kills the vibe of the fest last year, they were a bit difficult to work with and didn’t quite share our same vision. As our last hurrah, we wanted to take it to the people, and if they wanted to help, we would give them that option.”

Gritti used Kickstarter, a website that helps raise funds for independently-run projects by many, small donations, to raise the baseline of $3,000 needed to run the West Campus festival.

“Admittedly, we’ve never asked for your help in the past, but this year we’re going to need it,” Gritti posted on the West By West Campus Kickstarter page. The page was able to bring in $3,140 from 168 backers, 109 of which pledged only $5-10. Although the page was set up in the middle of January, the $3,000 goal was not reached until just 15 hours before the cutoff date of Feb. 7. The event also received monetary donations outside of Kickstarter from small local businesses such as Bodega and keg donations from Circle Brewery.

Gritti guessed approximately 1,500 people attended the event throughout the day.

“The turnout this year was great,” Gritti said. “We don’t have any numbers, but the people that wanted to be there were there and thats what really mattered.”

Though the funding for this year’s West By West Campus was reached fairly easily, the founders of the festival do not want it to stray too far from its roots and have still decided that this is its final year. Gritti and Hunt cite preserving the integrity of the festival as the reason founders of the fest have decided to end West By West Campus in its fifth year — they want to see other young adults starting their own festivals and they hope the spirit of West By West Campus can inspire.

Videography by Bryce Gibson. Photos by Britini Shaw and Chelsea Bass. Blog post by Elyana Barrera.