The City of Ballinger and the Chamber of Commerce worked for months on this year’s Ethnic Fest and that hard work showed by the number of vendors and attendees.

 A beautiful, clear day with temps hovering around 90 degrees kept the entire atmosphere pleasant. A large tent where various performances were held was comfortable all day without soaring temps or high humidity. All of the performances were presented to a packed house with standing room only.

  The festival kicked off with a parade that was so lengthy that it took it almost 40 minutes to pass along Hutchins Avenue. The marching band lead a procession that included first responder vehicles, including the new Ballinger Fire Department ladder truck, vintage tractors, antique cars, classic muscle cars, large trucks as well as floats from many of the civic groups and other organizations from around Runnels County.

 This year featured some firsts for the festival, including a “No Man’s Land” chili cook off organized by the Ballinger police department and chief Stanley Maresch as well as a washers pitching tournament.

 There was also the Noon Lions Club Bikefest, a car show, wild west reenactments, bumper balls, ethnic food booths and vendors of all varieties from sports memorabilia to Scentys to Young Living, furniture, clothing, home décor and toys. There were over 120 vendors this year and they were comfortably spaced out with ample roaming room on the lawn of the Runnels County courthouse.

 The vendors included people and businesses from the Agriplex as well as Victoria, Austin, San Angelo, Abilene, Colorado City, Snyder, Brownwood and Sweetwater. Manuel and Irma Godina have a sports memorabilia business and came in from Sweetwater to set up at the Ethnic Festival. Manuel said that they could tell a lot of work had been put into the festival by the organizers, “We’ve been coming to this festival for 10 years and this is the most people we’ve ever seen here. The layout is great and it’s easy to get around.”

 The No Man’s Land chili cook off had 12 entries this year and chief Maresch is working to get future cook offs as a Terlingua chili cook off qualifier, “We talked to the Terlingua folks and they were open to the possibility of us becoming a qualifier. This is our first year so we all had to see how things panned out.” An experienced chili judge came in a few weeks ago and trained the judges on how to judge the chili properly. The cook off also included categories for beans, salsa and chile verde’. The contestants included locals such as Jeff Smith and his team from KRUN radio and a team from the Ballinger fire department. Others came in from Abilene, Brownwood and San Angelo.

 The Knocker Ball area was a smash hit with kids of all ages. The location stayed busy the entire day with people of all sizes and shapes inserting themselves into the balls, strapping into the harnesses and then knocking each other around like beach balls. There were full-speed collisions and low-speed collisions with the participants being knocked head-over-tea-kettle time and time again. It was just as entertaining for the spectators as it was for the participants. People gathered two rows deep to watch the Bumper Ball shenanigans.

 Another area that drew in the spectators was the classic car show. It included antique cars from over the last 100 years or so in prime condition along with classic muscle cars from Mustangs to Chevelles. The cars were polished up and parked with the hoods up, windows down and doors opened so that spectators could viewthe cars, inside and out.

  One display included a 1960s drive-in theater setup with a classic Ford pickup, drive-in speaker on a stand and a tray of food attached to the driver’s side window. The engines were meticulously cared for, some with with authentic original parts while others sported high performance after-market parts. The exteriors were detailed and polished to the highest degree with chrome the color of the day, accentuated by painted flames and pinstripes. The owners of the cars were more than happy to discuss their priceless 4-wheeled treasures with the spectators.

 One of the most popular attractions was a kissing booth. Normally a kissing booth wouldn’t be a big deal, but this kissing booth was put on by the Ballinger Humane Society who had a Yorkie dog that was giving out pooch’s smooches for a donation. People were lined up with cash-in-hand and willing to wait for their turn to get a lick on their cheek.

 The biggest crowds gathered for the Sahawe Dancers from Uvalde, Texas. Their colorful and authentic Native American dress honoring various tribes and their incredibly athletic dancing drew people into the big tent by the hundreds. It was history in motion as their leader told the audience the background of their troupe and the history of each dance that they performed. According to their website, the dancers, “were originally founded in 1950 as the Comanche Club Indians by the Scoutmaster of Troop 81 in Uvalde, Texas, Joe W. Williams, as a program for older boys in scouting. Mr. Williams had read about a similar program in La Junta, Colorado, known as the Koshare Dancers, and their leader Buck Burshears. Mr. Williams and Mr. Burshears corresponded for some time about the possibilities of starting such an Indian dance group in Uvalde. The name of the group was changed to Sahawe Dancers in 1952.”

 The dances are from the tribes of the Kiowa, Sioux, Crow, Apache, Hopi, Santa Clara and Taos tribes. Their repertoire also includes dances from the Aztec and Yaqui. The group of dancers was made up of boys and girls from all ages. They mesmerized the crowd with dances such as the “House blessing” dance, which included the dancers using ribbon to wrap together and around each other during the performance.

 Their clothing was authentic as one dancer wore a “jingle dress” and performed in several dances. The jingle dress origins are attributed to the Ojibwa tribe. Wikipedia gives the origins of the Ojibwa Jingle Dress as, ”In both the Mille Lacs and Whitefish Bay versions, the dress and the dance appeared in a recurring vivid dream that was realized about the year 1900. In both versions, the dream came to a Midewinini (medicine man). In both dreams, there were four women, each wearing a jingle dress and dancing. Each dream also gave instructions on how to make the dresses, what types of songs went with them and how the dance was to be performed. In the Mille Lacs' version, the Midewinini upon awakening, with his wife made four dresses. He showed his wife how to dance in the dress, which he showed to the four women he had dreamed about, by calling the four women who in his dream wore them, dressed them in the dresses, brought them forth at a dance, told the people about the dream, and how the Midewikweg were to dress and dance.”

 One dancer in one tribe’s colorful Native American regalia was Jesse Fernandez. He performed several flawless dances as the dancers demonstrated the passion, creativity, splendor and art of the Native American tribes represented by the given dances. The performances of all of the dancers were greatly appreciated by those in attendance, with each performance receiving an enthusiastic round of applause.

 Runnels County Sheriff Carl Squyers, jail administrator Kimberly Dunn, deputy Clemente “Tito” Mata and Squyers’ wife, Cherie, staffed the sheriff’s office booth where they dispensed rulers, pencils and information. Dunn said that the Runnels County Commissioners Court recently approved 4 additional staffing positions for the jail. 

 The festival was scheduled to end at 3 p.m. but there were still many visitors and vendors still out there as the hour came and went. The official ending to the day was free concerts put on by Ox Martin and Tylor Bigley that began at 7 p.m. Mike McNeill, owner of Horny Toad Brewery in Rowena, was on hand and provided kegs of draft beer for the event. The brewery’s Ballinger Blonde and Angelo Amber beers were popular with the concertgoers. KRUN lined up the talent and sponsored the concerts.

 As with the previous 43 years of the festival, the food from various cultures was showcased. Popular celebrity chef Guy Fieri once said, “Cooking is all about people. Food is maybe the only universal thing that really has the power to bring everyone together. No matter what culture, everywhere around the world, people get together to eat.” The festival’s food did indeed bring people together on the courthouse lawn. There was a German booth that served wurst and was manned by Rhett Fricke and volunteers from Ballinger Memorial Hospital district; Jesus Christ Church ran a catfish booth that put out hot, fried catfish and French fries. A crawfish stand staffed by Beefmaster Steakhouse sated the Cajun appetite with a boil of crawfish, potatoes and corn. There were plenty of other food vendors from delightful funnel cakes to popular Mexican food.

 City councilman Bob McDaniel summed up the festival and the hard work and endless hours that went into it, “I go back to the festivals of Dr. Bill Tatum, who ran the shows where attractions like Miss America, Miss Canada and the Dallas Cowboys’ Cheerleaders were part of the festivities. Considering all of the side events that complimented the festival, they all contributed to this festival being ranked at the top. Kudos to the city, the Chamber, KRUN and the local newspaper for making this year’s festival a tremendous success.”

 City councilwoman Kristi Goetz said that the festival turned out to be a great family event, “Seeing so many families and friends enjoy each other, the city, and the outdoors warmed my heart this weekend. It seemed everyone was out and about with a smile on their face. My family enjoyed the chili cook off, washer tournament, parade, car show, tasty foods, vendors and the concert in the plaza around the new fountain. I’m so proud of our city and citizens for pulling together to make this event the huge success that it was.”

 Ballinger city manager Tommy Turney was proud, and rightfully so, about festival’s tremendous success, “I personally could not be more proud of our Chamber team and all the planning and hard work that went into making this year’s Ethnic Festival such a rousing success. I think it really showcased our beautiful little city and I think it brought a little pride back into the community. I remember, when I was a kid, the Ethnic Festival was a big deal. I remember running around the courthouse lawn and looking at all the cool and wonderful items and all the various food booths. It was something we all looked forward to every year. This weekend, reminded me a little bit of what we had back then. Once again, it shows what can happen, when our community comes together, to support an event. Even now, after the event, after the crowds are gone and the tables, tents, and chairs are stacked and put away, our Chamber Team is still hard at work, compiling an event wrap—up report, to evaluate what went well and what changes and improvements we can implement, for next year’s Ethnic Festival, as we are striving to make the event even bigger and better next year.

 It is a bit of a bittersweet moment for us here at City Hall and the Chamber, as this will be our Chamber Director’s last Ethnic Festival. Tammie Virden, our Chamber Director of 11 years, will be moving to greener pastures in June as she has been offered the prestigious position of Executive Director of the Texas Fort Trails Association. Tammie has been an asset to the city and an unwavering supporter of the community Ballinger. It is only fitting that she end her tenure, here at the Chamber, with a bang.”

 In the end, the food did bring people together as over two thousand people shared a spectacular spring day in west Texas, enjoying great food, great music and friendship.

 The festival respectfully showcased the ethnic cultures that built west Texas and that are still firmly interwoven in the fabric of life out here. It didn’t matter if your last name was Jones or Dusek, Petty, Schmidt, Virden, Halfmann, Goetz, Martinez, Guevara, Dorner, Smith, etc. It didn’t matter if you were from Ballinger or Victoria, San Angelo or Abilene, everyone came together through the hard work of dedicated people to celebrate our diversity and prove that we are truly stronger together. The people that came to this hot, arid country from England, Czechoslovakia, Germany and Mexico over a 130 years ago left a legacy that we should always strive to live up to. Artisans and ranchers, grocers and farmers, lawmen and businessmen all built this area into what it is today, the center of cotton, sheep, goats and cattle, an Agricultural center that helps to feed and cloth the nation.

 The Ethnic Festival showed that while many small towns shrink as people move away, Ballinger and the surrounding areas are still strong and still possess the wherewithal and fortitude to continue filling those big Texas cowboy boots that were left for us. We celebrate and respect our cultures and ethnicities that continue to make us what we are today, stronger together.

 Everyone who worked to make this festival come together; City manager Tommy Turney, Mayor Sam Mallory, Chamber of Commerce president Tammie Virden, the members of the Ballinger Chamber of Commerce, councilmen Bob McDaniel, Rick Morrish, Jason Gore and councilwoman Kristi Goetz, police chief Sam Maresch and the Ballinger police department, Jeff Smith at KRUN radio and all of the sponsors and organizers deserve our thanks and appreciation for making it possible to showcase our community in the best possible way; by bringing us all together for a few hours one spring day.