Changing Austin Landscape

The story behind 4 weird and legendary Austin festivals

The story behind 4 weird and legendary Austin festivals

drum circle at Eeyore's Birthday Party
Eeyore's Birthday Party has been going strong for 54 years. Eeyore's Birthday Party/Facebook

It's springtime in Austin, and that translates to festivals galore. Upcoming spring events include Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival, Austin Reggae FestivalO'Henry Pun-Off, and the traditional Pecan Street Festival on Sixth Street.

Now, we take a look back at four historic Austin festivals — some that still live on today.

Austin Aqua Festival
The major festival that native Austinites recall was Austin Aqua Festival. The 10-day event was held in August, typically a slow month for tourism, on an annual basis from 1962-1998. The event was heralded with great fanfare and included many water activities on Town Lake (now known as Lady Bird Lake), near Auditorium Shores. There were canoe races, fishing contests, sailing regattas, and more. Land activities were added, including pet parades, land-based fireworks, and concerts featuring popular acts with stars such as Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson.

The festival grew and morphed, moving from Festival Beach on Town Lake to a site about a mile away. In addition, events were held on stages at the Walter E. Long lake and park at 6614 Blue Bluff Rd. After a successful run of over three-and-a-half decades, the festival ceased.

One longtime Austinite worked for the festival in marketing then remained with the festival as a volunteer: Lynne Skinner. "From 1983 to 1985, these were the biggest years of the festival," Skinner recalls. "The festival began in 1962 as a way to promote summer tourism during a time when there isn't much activity ... when people look back and remember Aqua Fest, it was kitschy, there were uniforms, skipper pins, parades, concerts, and lots of water events, but it was fun."

Skinner also remembers that the festival was so popular with some Austinites that they literally left their jobs for the entire summer just to be available to volunteer.

Rodeo Austin
This event began in 1938 and continues today. A brand-new CEO, Rob Golding, has recently been hired to revamp the annual event and appeal to the growing and diverse community that Austin is today.

"We are a not-for-profit, 501(c)3 organization," Golding says, "with the stated mission of Supporting Youth Education and Preserving Western Heritage. We have granted over $7.5 million in college scholarships to Texas students."

Rodeo Austin, held March 11-25, includes the rodeo, stock show, fair, live music, drinks at a beer garden, and food provided by numerous food trucks.

This uniquely Austin event saluting the "Pandemonious Potted Pork Festival" (the original name for the event), ran from 1976-2007 and was held on a weekend day before or after April Fool's Day. The event location varied and was held at Soap Creek Saloon, Waterloo Park, Auditorium Shores, and other central locations. Thousands showed up to taste; fling; and celebrate clever Spam dishes such as chicken-fried Spam, Spamish omelets, Spam gator gumbo, grasshopper Spam cheesecake, Spam tamales, and more.

The fun and wacky festival caught the attention of national networks and news teams, and documentary filmmakers flocked to our fair city to participate and document the event. As Austin grew, and citizens realized that Spam originated in Austin, Minnesota — not Austin, Texas — the event folded. However, you can visit the Spam museum in Austin, Minnesota, or catch local act the Uranium Savages, headliners for Spam-a-Rama, still performing today.

Eeyore's Birthday
If you yearn for another uniquely Austin event still being held today, you are in luck. Eeyore's Birthday was originally conceived by a small group of UT graduate students in 1963. They named the event for Eeyore, the donkey from Winnie-the-Pooh. 

This all-day celebration is held annually at Pease Park on the last Saturday of April. The free event includes live music, food, drink, games, and plenty of drum circles. The event is a continuing part of "keeping Austin weird," and many view it as a modern-day salute to old Austin hippies. The 2017 Eeyore's is scheduled for April 29, and the rain date is May 6.