Texas Crab Festival Celebrates 33rd birthday in 2018 Featuring Music, Art, and Crabs

By Brenda Cannon Henley
One of the most successful traditions on the Bolivar Peninsula and throughout beautiful Southeast Texas is the Texas Crab Festival held at Gregory Park on Highway 87. It is held on Mother’s Day weekend each year and families from all over have made it the go to event to celebrate moms, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, other family members, and the Gulf Coast seafood that has projected the Peninsula into the limelight many times. The Festival has also been recognized as one of the best in the nation and has been featured in videos, interviews, TV programs, and countless blogs and writings. Bolivar people have fond memories of the three decades and counting of the Festival and for many different reasons.

Kerry Mears, a fourth-generation Bolivarian, who works for Southland Title on the Peninsula, says she remembers the very first festival. The family heard about it and her mom decided she would enter Kerry into the Miss Crab Legs Contest. She searched for and found the perfect dress for her daughter, did her hair, and took her to the Festival. Lo and behold, Kerry won the contest and has long remembered her good fortune and the fun she had. Now, she takes her children each year. “It has always been a family thing,” said Kerry. “Everyone enjoys it like they do most family gatherings. It has changed over the years, but in many ways, it is exactly the same as it was the year I was named Miss Crab Legs.”

Combine the good feelings that come with an old fashioned, familiar, family reunion, on the beautiful Southeast Texas Gulf Coast, the celebration of Mother’s Day Weekend, great music, exciting art and crafts provided by dedicated vendors, and delicious food, and you have a reason to be extremely pleased about the fact that The Texas Crab Festival is alive and well. In fact, it is more than just well. It is thriving and on tap to celebrate the big 33rd birthday this year.

Anne Willis, the long time matriarch of the Festival, laughs when asked if the Festival has come a long way since 1986 when it was initiated, and not on Mother’s Day weekend for the first few years. “No, we did not start out having it on Mother’s Day weekend, but we changed it to that after a while.” Now, it is a given that the Crab Festival attracts families to come together to celebrate mom or grandmother, and to enjoy music, food, and finding treasures. Bolivar residents have family members and friends that plan each year to vacation or visit on the Crab Festival weekend.

Anne’s laugh continues as she talks about those first years. “I will always think of it as a real learning experience for all of us. We knew we had a good thing here on the Bolivar Peninsula, and we really wanted to share it with others, but we did not know exactly how to do it. I guess you could say it was trial and error. We started out with a few faithful vendors and some good musicians, and it simply took off and grew and grew to what you see now.”

Anne said that George Vratis, a local business owner, was one of the hands-on founders, along with many other good people along the way. “Yep, George did everything and anything. He did whatever was needed most at the moment and people loved it.”

Anne also said the art and craft and food vendors that came faithfully year after year should also get much of the credit for the very successful Festival. “The Fredenburg family started out with the best funnel cakes and corn dogs you’ll ever taste.” “The Fredenburg family started out with the best funnel cakes and corn dogs you’ll ever taste.”

“The Fredenburg family started out with the best funnel cakes and corn dogs you’ll ever taste.”

Anne added that you really could not expect to plan and host a good festival of any kind without great food and entertainment to keep the people coming year after year. “Oh, my goodness, and the volunteers that make it all happen. We would not have a Crab Festival without the countless hours of work put into the event each year. It takes all hands on deck,” she said sincerely. Literally, dozens of dedicated people work nearly year round on getting everything ready for Mother’s Day Weekend. One of the greatest honors that can be given to a festival or gathering of any kind is that the volunteers and leaders make it look easy. That’s exactly what you feel when you walk through the gates of the Crab Festival each year. It seems that neighbors and friends have simply gathered together to have some fun, eat some good food, and to dance the night away.

This reporter spoke with Moody Fredenburg, son of the original founder of M & M Concessions, and asked about the early days of the Texas Crab Festival. “My dad and mom had a good concessions business and they loved coming to the Texas Crab Fest. In fact, we always planned to come a few days early or stay a few days later to fish and just enjoy the beaches,” said Fredenburg. “I don’t know exactly when Dad and Mom started coming, but I know it was early. It may have been the first one, and they came down from Liberty for a dozen years or so. My wife, Marsha, and I took it up when they slowed down and we operated the concessions for seven or eight years.” The current Fredenburgs loved the Peninsula so much that after Moody retired from Amoco Chemicals, they retired to the beach where they currently live.

Fredenburg says there are really no words to describe the Festival. “You really just have to experience it,” he says with some contemplation. “It is like a big family reunion with folks seeing people they have known for years, but have not had the chance to visit with in a while. You comment on how much the children have grown, who has died during that year, and new neighbors that have chosen Bolivar as home. The food is always good and man, oh, man, the entertainment. Some of the best musicians in Texas have graced that stage.” Fredenburg added that his mom always looked forward to Joe Faggard, a local legend, going about the grounds on Mother’s Day morning giving out pretty carnations to all of the women. Many mentioned Mr. Faggard and his love of the Texas Crab Festival. It was one of his duties to raise the flag at the opening ceremony and he did that until the year of his death. Mr. Faggard and his family are legends on Bolivar and people still talk and write about them.

“After we got our feet on the ground, we learned to dream big,” said Anne. “We expanded events and tried new ones. If they worked well, we kept them, and if they did not, we replaced them. We did not have a budget in the beginning and we had to make things work. I remember one year I was up the night before the Festival opened gluing seashells to trophies to present to winners. We gave sand dollars for medals and people loved them. We started by charging one fee for each vehicle that entered our gates, but we had to do away with that and start charging each individual to cover costs. We needed electricity and water and that costs money.”

Many good entertainers have graced the stage at the Texas Crab Festival with some going on to national and international prominence.

Anne said that she is very proud of the many entertainers that have graced the stage at the Texas Crab Festival. “We have had some of the great names and certainly some favorites of the crowds. “I well remember Donnie D and the Rocket 88s, Wayne Toups, and Ezra Charles, among so many.” Anne said they also learned a hard lesson. “We had featured Ezra so many times, and so one year, we thought we would have someone new, so we did not invite him. We got there on Saturday night and there were about 35 people holding big signs printed with ‘Where’s Ezra?’ on them. We learned our lesson.” Ezra Charles is still a big hit at the Festival and adoring fans come to hear and see him.

Clay Walker, a prominent country music star, made his first live performance on the Crab Fest stage and he went on to be a big star. The opportunity for new artists to perform and get their feet wet has been a big plus of the Fest and the Entertainment Committee keeps that in mind. “We like to showcase local talent when we can,” said Anne. “It gives them a break and it teaches them how to perform in front of a large, live audience.”

It is also encouraging for the new entertainers to be able to perform for friends and family. I remember one year when the Crab Festival Entertainment Committee invited SeaWeed, a band on the Peninsula made up of young high schoolers. They practiced their hearts out and really did well when they performed for the crowd to loud cheers. Entire classes of their schoolmates came, stood, cheered, and clapped. One would think the Beatles had been reunited. The looks on their faces as they exited the big stage were absolutely priceless and the performance gave them the confidence they needed to go on to win several contests including a Battle of the Bands at Lamar University Orange and studio recording time.

The Texas Crab Fest is held in Gregory Park where they have added a very nice covered pavilion, which makes a good dance floor, and adequate parking is provided. The beach offers its own draw and the event is one that is cherished by many. The many contests continue to draw participants and the entertainment is always good.

Kerry Mears, fourth generation Bolivarian, employed by Southland Title, was the winner of the first Crab Legs Contest at the 1986 Texas Crab Festival. Various dance contests have always been popular and many locals really get into winning.

There is usually a Texas 2-Step Dance Contest, the National Weiner Dog Races, a 5K Run and 1K Walk, the popuar washers tournament, and the Charity Crab Gumbo Cook-off, among others. And, then there is the food — What’s not to like about choice treats featuring crab, shrimp, and fish, along with many other delicacies that the vendors provide? The Texas Crab Festival was named one of the nation’s 10-Best Food Festivals to Dive Into and was featured in a recent telecast with Anthony Anderson. “They prepared crab all kinds of ways. There was crab guacamole, and garlic, butter, and crab meatballs wrapped in bacon, and a crab pie, and that’s not even mentioning the gumbo,” wrote Anderson.

“We’ve lost many of our regulars over the years,” said Anne with a hint of nostalgia. “Joe Faggard has died, Monte Potter with illness, and Sam Brown was killed in a fire, and I miss them. It seems that we always have good people stepping up to the plate and volunteering and I am so thankful for that. The Texas Crab Festival is the first thing some people come to Bolivar for, but it sure isn’t the last. They just keep coming back year after year and we are grateful for that.”

Brenda Cannon Henley can be reached at (409) 781-8788, or
brendacannonhenley@yahoo.com.

[5-7-2018]

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