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.
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.
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.
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.