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17 parties that altered Austin

As the fall social season starts, we look back at historical fandangos.


The fall social season arrived — early — last week with the always warmhearted Ice Ball for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Central Texas at the Hyatt Regency’s handy Zilker Banquet Room.

As we look forward to autumn’s parade of public events — see box for a sampling — we look back at parties that altered our fair city.

1. Oct. 17, 1839: Grand entry of President Lamar. Austin likely wouldn’t exist if President Mirabeau B. Lamar hadn’t stubbornly chosen a remote buffalo-hunting camp on the Colorado River for the capital of the Republic of Texas. Virtually everyone in Austin (pop. 553) joined the joyous parade welcoming the president and other national figures as they trailed in from the east on this day.

2. Dec. 25, 1871: Advent of the first railroad. Muddy or dust-choked roads kept Austin (pop. 4,400) pretty isolated until the first train arrived at the terminus of the Houston and Texas Central line on East Fifth Street. Hundreds of locals were in place to meet the two locomotives and two passenger cars at 4 p.m., which did not arrive until 6. “Cannons were fired, and about 9 p.m., all assembled at the Capitol for the grand reception, ball and supper,” wrote Gov. Elisha Pease. “It was a perfect jam.”

3. May 14-19, 1888: Dedication of the State Capitol. More than 20,000 out-of-towners showed up to witness the unveiling of what was then the biggest building in this part of the world. Visitors overwhelmed the still-small micropolis (pop. 14,000). Many of them stayed at Camp Ross and then paraded up Congress Avenue for the speeches, entertainments and inevitable ball.

4. Sept. 19, 1904: St. John Encampment. During this period, as many as 25,000 mostly rural African-American Baptists converged on Austin (pop. 22,000) each year, usually in the summer months. The faithful enjoyed parades, shows, sermons, exhibits, contests and educational demonstrations. Although Juneteenth (June 19) still holds special meaning for Texans in memory of the state’s late Emancipation announcement, the scale of the old encampments appears to have been even more impressive.

5. May 8, 1945, and Aug. 14, 1945: VE and VJ days salute the end of World War II: When fighting ended in Europe, and then three months later in the Pacific, Austinites — including military personnel stationed at Bergstrom Air Force Base and Bastrop’s Camp Swift — flocked to the streets of Austin (pop. 100,000) for delirious celebrations. The party in fact started across the country well before peace was officially proclaimed, “as if joy had been rationed and saved up for the three years, eight months and seven days since Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941,” as Life magazine reported after VJ Day.

6. Aug. 3-12, 1962: Initial Austin Aqua Fest. The completion of Longhorn Dam in 1959 impounded what was then called Town Lake, now Lady Bird Lake. A water-skiing demonstration in 1961 inspired the 20 watery events that launched Aqua Fest in Austin (pop. 200,000) in 1962. The annual attractions included theme nights, concerts, sailing regattas, water parades, beauty contests, carnival food, car races and more than a little controversy over noise and congestion until the plug was pulled in 1998.

7. Jan. 1, 1964: First national title of the Darrell Royal era confirmed. University of Texas football teams had won national titles under early ranking systems in 1914 and 1941. Coach Royal’s titles came in the TV era, when even folks not physically at the games felt they were part of the triumphs. Dancing in the streets ensued after the undefeated 1963 season and the win over Navy in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day.

8. March 17-19, 1972: Dripping Springs Reunion. The prototype for Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnics was, in a sense, Austin’s progressive country Woodstock, staged on a “thirsty piece of ranchland.” “The stage would have been up there near the stock tank,” reported the Statesman’s Dave Thomas in his definitive history. “Behind it, more than two dozen of country music’s biggest stars. In front, thousands of music fans sitting in the dirt, in lawn chairs, on coolers.”

9. March 20-25, 1973: Rodeo Austin comes of age. Started in 1940 as a fat stock show staged in the shadows of the State Capitol, the city’s rodeo and livestock extravaganza reached the modern era at the City Coliseum. In the show’s heyday, riders paraded down a festooned Congress Avenue. Kids got out of school. Offices closed. “Our first entertainer was Johnny Rodriguez,” recalls longtime rodeo backer Verlin Callahan, who was its president that year. “Right out of the jailhouse.”

10. Nov. 1-2, 1984: First downtown celebration of El Dia de Los Muertos. Many of the early parties for the city’s Latino community were focused around Fiestas Patrias, Mexican national holidays. But this party spilled onto the streets when Mexic-Arte Museum welded the energy of Austin’s suddenly confident arts community with the interpolated traditions of El Dia de Los Muertos, now part of a festival now dubbed Viva La Vida.

11. March 12-15, 1987: First South by Southwest. Nobody predicted that SXSW would grow into the cultural behemoth it is today, but anybody with a sense of the city’s nightlife knew that something special was happening when hundreds of music lovers showed up on the first day. This reporter remembers spontaneous parties, downtown clubs sans long lines and a feeling of social liberation on the streets.

12. Jan. 15, 1991: Ann Richards sworn in as governor. Marching across the Congress Avenue Bridge, now named after her, Gov. Ann Richards was uniquely suited to engage Austin and its social climate. The rest of the inauguration was a party. Another political night is memorable for different reasons: The Capitol-area presidential victory party of Gov. George W. Bush fizzled in the cold rain on Nov. 7, 2000, because the voting tally was too close to call.

13. Dec. 31, 1999: A2K. An estimated 260,000 people mobbed the intersection of Congress Avenue and Sixth Street to welcome the new century. Smaller Austin parties abounded. The city has always celebrated New Year’s Eve — as well as Halloween — in raucous style. This, however, turned into an all-time blowout.

14. Sept. 28-29, 2002: Inaugural Austin City Limits Music Festival. Can you believe it started in Zilker Park as just a two-day event? One-day passes cost $25. Now the monster fest stretches out over two weekends and attracts some of the biggest musical acts in the world. Except when the weather turns bad — and, oh, it has — the social experience can be transcendent.

15. Nov. 16-18, 2012: Our initial Formula One United States Grand Prix. Cassandras predicted chaos: Downtown streets locked up with traffic, round trips to Circuit of the Americas lasting uncounted hours. Others mocked the expected onslaught of snooty global elites. None of that happened. Shuttle buses took care of most of the traffic, and while producers set up some velvet-roped pop-up clubs downtown, people mixed freely — and still do.

16. April 11-12, 2013: First Mack, Jack & McConaughey. The 21st century has seen some smashing annual charitable parties: The gorgeous Fête/fêt*ish for Ballet Austin, the jazzy Red, Hot & Soul for Zach Theatre, the dazzling Dell Children’s Gala, the celebrity-studded nights for the Andy Roddick Foundation, the edifying Toast of the Town series for the St. David’s Foundation, to name a few. The multipronged MJM event, inspired by the old Willie Nelson-Darrell Royal-Ben Crenshaw bashes, combines numerous delightful elements (including Camila Alves’ fashion show), and it has already cleared more than $5 million for targeted children’s charities.

17. Sept. 20, 2014: Austin Pride hits a historical mark. Apple assembled 3,000 supporters to join the Austin Pride parade down Congress Avenue, which was cheered by more than 125,000 spectators that year. Now think back to April 1970, when only 25 people showed up for the first publicly promoted meeting of Austin homosexuals. The LGBT merriment increased during the 2015 Austin Pride events, since the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in favor of marriage equality in June, but there was something magical about the unexpected public cohesion of 2014.



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