A long time ago, a little town called Washington sat on the west bank of the Brazos River. It wasn’t much of a town – it just kinda sprang up around a ferry crossing – but it was in Washington that delegates from all of the Texas settlements got together during the Texas Revolution and officially decided that Texas should not be part of Mexico anymore.
While the town of Washington no longer exists, in its place stands Washington-on-the-Brazos, a State Historic Site. And each year a Texas Independence Day festival is held there.
We’ll probably only want to stay there for a couple of hours. ~ Mom, before the trip.
Based upon dim memories from long-ago field trips, Mom and I didn’t think Washington-on-the-Brazos consisted of very much, just a log cabin thingy and a gift shop. We didn’t know what to expect from the festival. Was the festival going to be a reactionary political rally, with politicians suggesting secession from the United States? Was the festival going to consist of a small group of old white people gathered around a small old wooden structure, longing for the days of the antebellum South? Would there be ice cream?
We were gonna find out.
After driving into the park through its well-kept front gate entrance and well-maintained grounds — we just as easily could have been driving into Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters — and parking in a large temporary dirt parking lot with a terrific view of an idyllic farm, we walked uphill along a dirt path towards the park proper. The first thing we saw on that path were a pair of cannons.
A handwritten sign by the cannons indicated that they would be fired at 10:30 a.m. We made note of the current time (10 a.m.), vowing to come back for the loud BOOM noises.
The 10:30 time slot turned out to be more of an aspiration than a promise. When we returned, the sign had been surreptitiously changed to 11 a.m. We worried this was the beginning of a Sisyphean trap in which we were doomed to never venture more than a short distance away from the cannons, returning every 30 minutes from 10:30 until eternity, each time hoping THAT would be the time they are fired, but each time seeing the sign changed by another 30 minutes. We decided that we had seen cannons fire before, thank you very much, and ventured on to see other things, giving the artillery no further thought (until we heard their distant, booming thunder right at 11).
A little farther down the path from the cannons, we encountered an encampment of…reenactors? Cosplayers? Whatever they were, they were very friendly and had a bunch of neat stuff that they were super eager to show to anybody that was interested.
The main thoroughfare running through the park was packed with people and lined with booths, some providing exhibitions of how to make stuff while others were just trying to sell stuff. Mom and I stopped at an archaeology booth and tried to guess what the various artifacts on display were.
We toured the museum that’s at the park. I discovered later that it is organized sort-of chronologically, so that if you go the correct way (left), you will experience the passage of time naturally, from the distant past of Ice Age creatures to Chuck Norris’ jacket from “Walker, Texas Ranger.”
Instead of proceeding in accordance with the natural flow of time, I inadvertently directed us in the wrong direction, creating the impression that we were traveling backwards in time through the history of Texas. The fact that we did so WITHOUT me humming the theme song from Back to the Future the entire time is a minor miracle (according to Mom) and a major source of shame (according to me).
During our journey through time and space, we came to a room that was dedicated to quilting. Friendly older ladies demonstrated their craft at tables spread around the room, explaining their techniques and answering questions.
Mom used to quilt. When she was a little girl, her mom (“Granny”) was part of a quilting circle at the Baptist Church. Mom would sit at Granny’s feet, listening to the older ladies gossip, helping where she could, while Granny made beautiful warm works of art. Later, when Mom was a grownup, she taught her older sister, Kathy, how to quilt, and they shared that hobby together for years. Granny and Kathy aren’t alive anymore. Mom no longer quilts.
Over the years, Mom has tried to pick up quilting again. She attended meetings of various quilting organizations around town, but she never felt comfortable with them. In the room of that museum, though, Mom felt welcome. One lady gave Mom samples of materials and patterns. Another demonstrated a technique that Mom recognized from Granny. Seeing these women and this style of handmade quilting triggered memories of times Mom had fun with Granny and Kathy, and Mom shared those memories with me. Mom hugged the ladies in that room, and we left with tears in our eyes and smiles on our faces.
When we got hungry, we explored the host of food vendors hawking their vittles from temporary booths and trucks. They offered a wide variety of tasty, fried-and-salted dietary options. And there WAS ice cream.
Mom and I opted for chicken-on-a-stick and lemonade from an Asian cuisine vendor. The chicken was fine, but the lemonade…oh…the lemonade. It could not have been fresher. The food vendor made the lemonade after we ordered it. I do not mean she poured it; I mean that she MADE it: she squeezed the lemons, added sugar and water, and did whatever else one does to create this little gift of the gods. The sweetness was perfectly balanced with the tartness. It was not too watery nor was it too thick and syrupy. It was absolute perfection. Of course, Mom and I can’t remember the name of the vendor, so we have no way of finding it again. Not a week goes by that we don’t talk about that lemonade. It haunts my dreams…
Our initial worries that there wouldn’t be a lot to do at the festival proved unfounded. Talented musicians sang folksy proto-country songs in a tent. A band of older folks played their tunes in the grass, with young children clapping along. There was a play re-enacting the meeting of the delegates to declare independence. Polish dancers performed traditional dances in costume. A snake oil salesman put on a comedy show.
Our other concerns also proved to be unfounded. We didn’t see any (present-day) reactionary political rallies with people screaming in front of intimidating statutes.
While there were white people — and reenactors — around an old wooden building, they did not strike us as particularly longing for the Old South.
The true historical factors and issues motivating Texas Independence are complicated and disputed. I don’t think they really mattered to the vast number of people who attended this festival, though. It was a huge racially-and-ethnically diverse crowd, and the energy was overwhelmingly positive. It was a celebration of TEXAS, a state carved out of the wilderness, a state that fought and won against a power-mad totalitarian military dictator who possessed a superior army, a state that survived as its own country for ten years before becoming, by its own choice, part of the United States, a state composed of myth and pride, a state that had churches with quilting circles, a state where everyone takes annual family pictures in a field of blue wildflowers, a state that can have this festival.
While contemplating Texas-as-Browncoats-and/or-Rebel Alliance, Mom and I tried to reach Barrington Farm, a working living history farm located at the park. We tried to access it from the parking lot, uphill and in the mud, and that route is not the correct way. We were met with a fence designed to keep out attacking Native Americans, so we stood no chance of accessing the farm. Too tired to turn around and go the correct way, we vowed to return at some point in the future.
We were glad we came to the festival. Next year, we hope to budget more time in order to watch more performances. And to remember the provider of the lemonade!