Houston County Courier - Local News
Stories Added - June 2009
Copyright 2009 - Polk County Publishing Company
History of Fiddler’s Festival
Houston County Courier - June 2009
By Suzanne Steed
The 73rd World Champion Fiddler’s Festival will be held on Saturday, June 13 at the Crockett Civic Center. The opening ceremonies will be held at 10 a.m. and the festivities will include a tractor parade, great music, and a steak cook-off.
Call the Crockett Area Chamber of Commerce for tickets or additional information.
The World Championship Fiddlers Festival, is a yearly event that takes place the second weekend in June and keeps the community buzzing with anticipation and memories throughout the year.
In 2008 Suzanne Steed spoke with Bob Mattox who recalled the Fiddlers Festival of years gone by.
Mattox stated that the festival began in 1936 and then he began the historical account of the Fiddlers Festival as he had witnessed it throughout the years.
“It was started by Barker Tunstall, an old time fiddler and piano tuner, who got together a bunch of old fiddler friends to come to Crockett and perform. The square was blocked off and the fiddlers played on the Court House lawn. It ended with a dance on the square.
This went on until after the WWII, when the boys came home from the War and organized the Junior Chamber of Commerce. At the urging of the downtown merchants and to expand its activities, it was moved to the park.
It was held in the old Livestock Pavilion, which had a stage and could accommodate a large crowd.
It really took off when the late Roy Garner got a hold of it, changed its format, and got the idea to name it ‘The World Championship Fiddlers Contest.’ The name was patented and according to Roy, it prevented Athens, Texas from using the title.
Roy Garner was a great fan of fiddle music becoming acquainted with it through his maternal grandfather, Uncle Tooz Lively and even giving it a try in his younger days.
He was the first emcee when it moved to the park and continued for some twenty years afterward. With his natural line of bull, he was good at it.
The format back then was similar to the one used today with the older fiddlers starting off the morning program playing old tunes such as Black Mountain Rag, Boil Them Cabbages Down, Gray Eagle, Sally Johnson, Bitter Creek, Old Joe Clark, Eighth of January, Bake them Hoe Cakes Brown, Cotton Eyed Joe, The Orange Blossom Special, and other old tunes learned by ear and passed down from generation to generation.
They all sounded pretty much the same to us but they knew the difference. The younger players would play during the day.
Different bands and entertainers would perform during the day. Some of these were really good, having been booked early by Jim Gibbs and Bill Carter who saw their potential early on.
The climax of the event was the dance held that night in the Old Exhibit building. Usually several bands, some free of charge, would play for the event.
Many last minute things had to be done such as borrowing all the shop fans in town, putting tubs of ice in front of the fans, putting corn meal on the floor, getting a P.A. System, setting up proper lights, and so forth.
Always saved for last was the crisis of getting a piano for the dance. Now a man who didn’t believe in drinking and dancing owned the piano available with the means to transport it. Every year we had to send a delegation of Jaycees, who were experienced in stretching the truth, to promise him that we would do our best to prevent anyone from drinking or dancing. The Texas Rangers could not have done this and he knew this as well as we did but at least it salved his conscience and ours didn’t need salving. This was a game we played each year.
The Festival and Crockett got national news in 1968 when Jefferson Davis, publisher of the Crockett Democrat, at a news convention in Galveston presented President Richard Nixon with two coonskin caps for his daughters.
The zenith of the Fiddlers Festival was reached later that year when Crockett was invited to send a delegation of fiddlers to the Hemisfair in San Antonio. The town quickly raised the money to do this.
Roy Garner quickly rounded up a group of fiddlers that had performed here including Jesse Johnson, Leon Selp, Louis Franklin, J.T. McBride, fourteen year old Gordon Townsend, Mary Sampler, the only woman up to that time to win a championship, and many others. He rounded up several western bands also.
Included in the group were six lovely members of the Beta Sigma Phi dressed in buckskin skirts and coonskin caps. They made a big hit as they passed out brochures and answered questions about Crockett and Houston County. As President of the Houston County Development Foundation, that sponsored the trip, Peggy, my wife, and I went along.
The first performance was Thursday noon in front of some fifteen hundred people, mostly news reporters, and another performance that night before another large crowd. The Hemisfair didn’t open to the general public until Saturday, so Friday we had the run of the whole place.
Friday was something special with a reception by Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie, and including many well-known people. Roy Garner and his group put on a show that drew praise from the Governor and other dignitaries.
Two more outstanding shows were done on Saturday with a final show on Sunday that was recorded and is now in the archives of The Institute of Texas Culture in San Antonio.
Later, the group had an invitation by an official of the Grand Old Opera to appear on their show, but didn’t have the incentive to attempt something like this again. This was once in a lifetime event that that I feel most fortunate to have been a witness to and a part of.”
With this final statement, Bob Mattox had given an historical account of what might be considered part of the very fabric of Houston County.
This Event has been enjoyed by those of Houston County and beyond. The Fiddlers Festival is a fixture of Crockett and Houston County as much as the tall pine trees, historic architecture, Davy Crockett Spring and being the first county established in the Republic of Texas.