As RenFest Ends Latest Season, Look Back at How Time-Traveling Fair Began

Once upon a time – back in ye olden days of 1974 – the Texas Renaissance Festival was nothing more than 15 acres of a strip-mined gravel quarry pit, complete with a few tents, makeshift platform stages and bales of hay. Now spanning just under 60 acres and boasting nearly 400 shops, the RenFest that's wrapping up its 42nd season this three-day weekend has dramatically changed from its original iteration.

“Originally, the fair was all intended to be artists who make their own art. The man who owns it, George Coulam, is an artist and is an artist at heart, and he sees that entire fair project as his art project. So in the beginning, he invited artists to come to this bare piece of land,” recalled Connie Colten, a jewelry and sculpture artist who first set up her wares at the RenFest in its second year, after she heard about it from her network of artist friends.

“In the very beginning, nobody really had a model for what is a Renaissance fair,” Colten added. The artists had to build their own booths, she said, which were often no more than “simple structures” that only sometimes had a second floor for people to sleep in over the weekend. The main requirement was that the buildings had to resemble something someone might have spotted in a village in Tudor-era England.

“[The RenFest was] one-fourth of what it is today,” said Ligia Giles. In '76, when tickets cost just $4.99 a head and Giles's family visited the RenFest for the first time, “Really, we were just going in circles looking around the crafts and the foods.”

Yet that first visit led Giles to fall in love with the RenFest, so when, a few months later, she was reading the Conroe Courier and saw it was hiring, she told her husband, “I want to belong to this beautiful place.” Today, Giles is known to festival attendees as The Empanada Lady. She owns and operates 14 different “shoppes,” to use the RenFest parlance, and this year will be her 40th at the festival.

In the '80s, as the price of oil fell – and, as always, Houston's economy fell with it – numerous artists pulled out of the festival, Colten said. “And in order to fill all the booths – because that's a lot of shops; you can't have some full and some empty – George made a decision to allow people who do buy-sell things, like import things,” she said, adding, “I don't think the public was super-aware of the difference.” While that naturally disadvantages artists like her, Colten said, Coulam remains true to the festival's original mission by “honor[ing]” artists who make their own wares, often through setting up special showcases for them or commissioning artworks for the festival grounds.

Both Colten and Giles agreed on the aspect of the RenFest that's changed the most since its opening: There's just so much more – more land, more people, more attractions. While in the '70s it might have taken visitors only an afternoon to check out the entire festival, “If you really want to see and enjoy everything, look in the gardens, the altars, in one day you are not going to see everything,” Giles said. “It would take you two days at least to really enjoy, in such a way that you really felt the beauty of this place.”

Next year, there will again be more for festival-goers to experience. The RenFest will extend its season with another themed weekend, and add three more acres to the park to build an area meant to evoke a fairy-tale village.

When asked what they thought had changed, Sandra Hand and Mitch Gaspard – RenFest attendees who have gone to the festival every year since it opened, and who spoke with the Houston Press at this year's opening weekend – said the park had also become more family-friendly over the years. “Well, they don't have the gals gyrating in chain mail,” Hand laughed.

For the last weekend of the season, which has a “Celtic Christmas” theme, the RenFest will be open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Gates open at 9 a.m. Tickets are $30 for adults and $15 for children. As RenFest attendees faced hours-long traffic last weekend thanks to a car accident and railway repairs – which may still be ongoing this weekend – RenFest staffers recommended that attendees try to enter the festival from the north. In an emailed statement, they recommended using these alternative routes:

For people coming from central and east Houston, "Take I-45 North to HWY 105 in Conroe, Texas. Head east (left turn) on HWY 105 approximately 30 miles to FM 1774 in Plantersville. Head south (left) on FM 1774 approximately 6 miles to the Festival north entrance." For people coming from west Houston, "Take HWY 290 North to HWY 6 and HWY 6 North to HWY 105 in Navasota. Head west (right turn) on HWY 105 approximately 15 miles to FM 1774 in Plantersville. Head south (right turn) on FM 1774 approximately six miles to the Festival north entrance."

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Carter is the Houston Press fellow. A Seattle native, she graduated from Northwestern University and also has written for Elle, Los Angeles magazine and Ms. Magazine.
Contact: Carter Sherman