Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer and a respite from the start of school. But to we the people of West, it’s Westfest weekend, a tribute to our nation’s diversity and a joyous expression of faith in our community’s future. In that sense, it’s more relevant than ever.
For those new to the area, Westfest is a cultural celebration in the town of West, population 2,900, north of Waco. You’ll find cultural dances and skills on display at the amphitheater. It’s the site of our Westfest Sunday morning polka mass, a Catholic mass with worship music set to Czech songs. Here you’ll find a wide array of outfits. You’ll find the traditional kroj, authentic cultural dress of Czechs. You’ll also find TexCzech versions of cultural dress.
You’ll find people in jeans, T-shirts, tank tops and shorts as they plan to enjoy the revelry of Westfest after the reverence of mass. And you might find people in running clothes as many have just finished running the Kolache 5000 through the streets of West. They too sometimes decide to join in mass. We have had priests from the Czech Republic celebrate our mass.
Under massive tents and a pavilion, you’ll find Czech and German music. There is the ever-popular “nuclear polka” created by the band Brave Combo and, this year, Spanish music. Large dance floors are set aside for dancing. Beer flows from kegs beneath these tents. Another large tent houses arts-and-crafts vendors. Along the fairway, you can get all kinds of cultural foods — sausage boats, beer-bread sandwiches, kolaches, turkey legs and good ol’ Bold Springs hamburgers. A huge midway beckons to little ones and teens.
Last year’s Westfest had a theme, “Million Dollar Polka,” based on confidence Westfest would make its millionth dollar. It did so. Westfest donates this money to various organizations and causes around West. It also gives several scholarships to graduating seniors yearly. Even after the deadly explosion that struck West on April 17, 2013, flattening much of our town, we still held Westfest. To do otherwise would have been to admit defeat. In what had to be the longest Westfest parade ever, fallen first responders were saluted as honorary marshals. It seemed almost as many fire trucks and emergency vehicles were on view that Saturday as we saw the awful night of the fertilizer plant blast.
This year’s Westfest theme is “The Good Old Days” — except those very first days of Westfest weren’t all that pleasant.
In spring 1976, Sue Pescaia of the Cechoslovák Publishing Company in West called a meeting of some two dozen locals. I worked for her husband, Linn, at the West News, so I came. We had no idea what we were going to be meeting about. Mrs. Pescaia began by asking if we would be interested in doing something festive in West since it was the bicentennial year of our country. Her vision: an arts and crafts cultural fair on what was then called the West Rodeo Grounds. All agreed but me.
I was 19. I remember thinking: “An arts and crafts fair here in West? Boy, that will never fly.”
Forty-three years later, the festival is going strong. It flew.
Mounted Labor Day weekend 1976, the first festival was advertised as the “Last Blast of the Summer.” To raise money to start the festival, Westfest offered prepaid charter memberships allowing free entrance to the grounds. Talk about faith!
That first Westfest took place on an unrelentingly torrid weekend. Traffic was unbelievable. Entry to the fairgrounds wasn’t as streamlined as now, so cars stacked up along Main Street. I remember running late and being stuck in traffic. I was supposed to be announcer for the cultural programs. This was before cellphones, so I had no way of calling the fairgrounds to let anyone know what happened to me. Turned out everyone was running late because of the traffic.
There was no midway for the kids in those days. My 12- and 13-year-old brothers were so bored with all the dancing and drinking that they and their friend entertained themselves by riding air-conditioned transit buses back and forth to and from Westfest grounds. They still talk of some of the people on the buses, no doubt in various states of merriment. I fear many people on the bus long recalled my brothers.
There was no parade on Saturday, no mass on Sunday, no Kolache 5000. There was no Miss Westfest or preview party. Those came later. There was only one tent for music and cultural programs, one tent for arts and crafts. The dance floor was under a tent where the pavilion is now. The West Rodeo had been completed only weeks before. Horse dookie from the rodeo was in a pile under the tent and a parquet floor was set up over it. That’s what we danced on. Huge horse flies buzzed and dive-bombed us as we sweltered in the heat and danced.
Westfest has changed in 43 years. We’ve updated plenty, a necessity given not only its phenomenal popularity but the fact foreign dignitaries and other national and international visitors join in. And all this is because one lady wanted her town to have some fun during our nation’s 1976 bicentennial and to bring money into the area for good causes. So, yes, I’ll eat crow in tribute to her faith, preferably with beer bread and sauerkraut and maybe a kolache for dessert.