History of Wurstfest, the Salute to Sausage in New Braunfels
It started with a young New Braunfels man serving his country. Young John Grist was stationed in the Army in Germany in the fall of 1959. Upon returning home to New Braunfels, he told his parents, Ed and Betty Grist, about the beer, food and music at Oktoberfest in Germany. Dr. Ed Grist, the local New Braunfels veterinarian and city meat inspector, of course, new all of the sausage makers in town and was hit with the idea to have a similar party in New Brauntels. And that was just his idea; a party. As he also knew the beer distributers, he knew, that just like making sausage, the right ingredients were in place. He mixed in music and in 1961, the first "Sausage Festival" was held in New Braunfels.
All Ed and Betty, both avid dancers, ever expected was that they would have a party to showcase the sausage-making heritage brought from Germany 116 years earlier. 2,000 people showed up for this "party" that the Grists had put together, which featured music by the local New Braunfels singing clubs and Amtliche Stadt Wurst Kapelle (the Official City Sausage Band). This Saturday event was preceded by a week of local acitivities that included sausage dishes on menus of local cafes and specials on sausage products in local New Braunfels meat markets and grocery stores. Visitors had been attracted by literally world-wide publicity … there were feature stories on this unique celebration in newspapers in Canada and Germany, as well as most major cities in the United States.
Sausage Festival visitors watched ladies of the Grange demonstrate sausage-making practiced by their forebears who brought their recipes to the Texas wilderness which later became New Braunfels. They saw modern methods used today, which have left unchanged the mouth-watering flavors of original recipes. They also saw an impressive display of antique meat grinders and sausage stuffing machines gathered from attics and basements of the community of New Braunfels.
The first year it was “Sausage Festival” … later “Wurst Week” … and finally “WURSTFEST”. At the time, no one in New Braunfels anticipated the phenomenal success this festival would achieve. The first festival was scheduled for Landa Park, but because of threatening weather it was moved to the New Braunfels National Guard Armory. The second year was a two-day affair and survived the worst storm of the year, a hail and windstorm that blasted New Braunfels and all of Comal County. Held in Landa Park, its visitors and exhibitors rode out the storm while consuming 1,500 sausage plates.
The festival went “bigtime” in ’63, moving downtown to the Rathskeller (a burned-out Eiben & Fisher Department Store basement, now the New Braunfels Utilities parking lot) with an event scheduled every night of Wurst Week. Tents were erected in the basement and partygoers had to walk down steps to get to the festival. As rains came during the week, pumps were brought in to keep the basement dry. As visitors to New Braunfels came downtown, they found the entire square packed with people coming and going to the event.
Somewhere around this time, in the early years of Wurstfest, some enterprising New Braunfels meat market came up with the idea of the "pigwich", a sausage sandwich or a pig in a blanket which could be held in one hand while a beer was held in another. Soon thereafter, someone came up with the idea of putting the sausage on a stick, thus making it even easier to eat and drink without the need for a table or utensils. A popular rumor has it that the first sausage-on-a-stick vendor scoured the grounds nightly for leftover sticks to boil and re-use the following night. Dr. Grist, still the working for the city, put a quick stop to that practice!
Attendance in 1964 tripled, reaching 30,000 and the visitors consumed 5,000 pounds of sausage. In 1966, the pressure on the Rathskeller was so great (an estimated 35,000 attended that year) that it became necessary to find a larger venue in New Braunfels. Over five tons of sausage disappeared from food booths that year.
WURSTFEST broke in a new site in 1967 … half of the present Wursthalle … and attendance jumped to 40,000. In 1968, the entire Wursthalle, having approximately 33,000 square feet and seats for over 2,000 people, was leased in time for 56,000 visitors in the expanded ten-day run.
In 1969, balmy weather throughout the ten days of WURSTFEST contributed to a record attendance of 75,000. Food served from 48 booths included Wurst Tacos, Sauerkraut Pizzas, Corn on the Cob, Shish-ka-bobs, Wurst-ka-bobs and all kinds of sausage.
The festival had its first bigtime entertainer in ’68 when Myron Floren of the Lawrence Welk TV show came to New Braunfels to perform at the event. In 1972, New Braunfels got national exposure when a segment of Floren’s performance at WURSTFEST was shown on the Lawrence Welk show.
In spite of almost ten days of cold, rainy weather in New Braunfels, 1974 attendance rose to 150,000 and in 1975 over 160,000. In 1974, the Biergarten was added along with new security facilities and restrooms. In 1975, new gate buildings were added and in 1977 the Wursthalle was painted and the tower received a new roof.
1978 was a benchmark year with the purchase of the Dittlinger Feed Mill property, and a sub-lease on a portion of the LCRA property. This tripled the size of the WURSTFEST grounds and entertainment area for the 150,000 visitors to New Braunfels. A grounds admission charge and strict policies, along with improved facilities, removed any doubt that the festival would continue to be a family oriented event. WURSTFEST in New Braunfels, Texas was listed among the top attractions in the world for the month of November.
Wurstfest attendance in 1979 climbed to 165,000 Wurstfesters who purchased 42,000 Kartoffel Puffers, 22,000 Shish-ka-bobs, 19,000 ears of corn, 10,000 turkey legs and 42 tons of sausage. In 1980 and 1981 the attendance leveled off to 150,000, but food and beverage sales stayed at 1979 levels. In 1981 rain caused an attendance drop of 50% on the first Saturday, but returned to normal for the rest of the fest.
Proceeds from 1979 through 1981 were used for beautification and land development in Landa Park in New Braunfels. $120,000 was spent on landscaping, erosion control and traffic flow improvement at the entrance to Landa Park. $600,000 was spent by WURSTFEST in ’80 and ’81 for erosion control and landscaping along the Comal River.
In ’82, WURSTFEST acquired Jerome Nowotny’s “World’s Largest Beer Bottle Collection” consisting of over 10,000 bottles.
Shuttle bus service from local hotels and motels was introduced in 1983 and continues today.
In ’85, WURSTFEST celebrated its 25th Anniversary with Myron Floren and the University of Texas Longhorn Band opening the festival. A postal cancellation was designed to commemorate the 25th Anniversary celebration and a temporary postal station was located in the Marktplatz.
In ’86, WURSTFEST opened its administrative offices on the grounds in the Kleinehalle building and an information booth was constructed at the base of the tower to serve the 120,000 visitors. A portion of the Dittlinger Mill Building housed the first arts and crafts show on the grounds.
In 1987, larger, clear-span entertainment tents were situated at each end of the Marktplatz. The size of Das Grosse Zelt (Big Tent) was doubled, and the new arrangement was well received by the 125,000 visitors to WURSTFEST. A 32 piece brass band from Bonbaden, Germany, performed to the delight of the crowds and Myron Floren celebrated his 20th anniversary as featured entertainer. Favorable weather for nine of the ten days and widespread media coverage contributed to increased attendance and WURSTFEST was rated in the top 100 events in North America by the American Bus Association.
The ’88 WURSTFEST drew 135,000 visitors from 48 states, Canada, Mexico, Germany and other European countries. They were entertained by a 40 piece brass band from Runkel, West Germany. Unseasonably warm weather all ten days allowed young ones to enjoy the expanded children’s area with parents nearby and concessionaires were delighted with the more than 12% overall increase in sales.
National media attention focused on the ’89 WURSTFEST as the reunification of Germany began with the opening of the Berlin Wall. Earlier that week, members of the Texas Accordion Association gathered … bringing instruments as unique as the individuals themselves … and joined family members, special guests and hundreds of faithful fans in a salute to Myron Floren on his birthday.
The ’90 festival introduced the Schorsch Pfeiler Band from Munich, welcomed four time Grammy Award Winner Jimmy Sturr and his Orchestra to WURSTFEST for the first time and arranged for Park and Ride service from San Antonio. Organizers were encouraged by the increase in attendance and sales on opening day; however, periodic cold, wet weather slowed attendance overall.
In ’91, the coldest weather of the entire winter season settled in New Braunfels during the ten day event, but loyal patrons braved the cold and enjoyed the food, fun and fellowship that this festival is famous for!
The festival success story continued. In ’92 the Children’s Museum created a special hands-on exhibit, “Where in the World is Germany?” in the Landa Recreation Center adjacent to the festival grounds. The additional charge to enter the Wursthalle was eliminated in ’93. Weather continued to be a major factor and kept attendance figures around the 100,000 level. The weather picture for ’94 was a welcome change from recent years … eight days of mild temperatures and sunshine brought thousands to the grounds and the highest number of paid admissions was recorded since 1989. Concession receipts rose 32.5%. ’95 was another good year for the festival.
In ’96 special attention was given to the accessibility and appearance of the grounds by adding a paved walkway complete with decorative iron fencing along the water from Gate #1 to the waterfall, and a decorative facade on the south end of the Marktplatz. Ten days of ideal weather allowed the ’96 festival to surpass previous records. In ’97, Floren made his 30th consecutive annual appearance at WURSTFEST. Access to the north end of the riverwalk was improved and planning for the development of a multi-purpose area in the Kleinehalle adjacent to the Biergarten to display the Nowotny Bottle Collection continued. Fabulous fall weather and a tremendous line-up of entertainment pushed attendance upward again in ’97.
1998 was quite a year. On October 17, just thirteen short days prior to the festival opening, floodwaters devastated New Braunfels. More than twenty inches of rain caused the Comal and Guadalupe rivers to rise to levels never recorded before … much of the property along the Comal River owned by the Wurstfest Association was underwater, and enhancements to the Gate #1 area completed in ’96 were destroyed. Festival officials immediately surveyed the damage and declared the festival would continue as planned.
Many were amused by such optimism, but members and local businesses pitched in and prepared the grounds for opening day. Those who attended found it hard to believe that such damage had actually occurred. Myron Floren visited with his loyal fans by phone from his home in California as he recuperated from surgery. Die Froehliche Dorfmusik returned for their second visit to Texas and Wurstfest, and a progressive young group from New York, Die Schlauberger, made their first appearance at Wurstfest. Their modern and traditional alpine music was a marvelous addition to favorite entertainers such as Jimmy Sturr and his Orchestra, Alpenfest, Sauerkrauts and others. Rainy weather five out of the ten days slowed attendance, however organizers declared this festival one of the most successful ever!
Visitors contributed thousands to flood victims and Wurstfest matched every dollar contributed to flood relief during the month of November. A total of $50,000 was turned over to the Community Service Center by the Wurstfest Association to aid local flood victims.
In ’99 festival patrons enjoyed the finest in Alpine and Bavarian style entertainment. Clear skies, mild temperatures, good food and a strong line-up of popular performers proved to be a winning combination for the 39th annual Wurstfest … the ’99 festival earned its place in history as the top income producer for the ‘90’s!
2000 … Opening day was reminiscent of the very first sausage festival in 1961 when storms drove the sausage and sauerkraut from Landa Park to the National Guard Armory; and it continued to rain throughout the entire ten days of the 40th annual Wurstfest! But they came, they ate, sang and danced and had a great time anyway!
The 2001 festival opened with a concert by the Comal Community band and the first annual Wurstfest Polka Contest. Blessed with fine weather, outstanding entertainment and great food, the 41st annual Wurstfest came close to setting new records in attendance and sales.
WURSTFEST was the recipient of a gift of a one-half acre piece of property on Landa Street from JPMorgan/Chase Bank in 2002 which allowed the organization to increase patron parking. A portion of the Jerome Nowotny Bottle Collection was finally put on public display in “Der Spass Haus.” Rain and cold weather slowed attendance the first five days, however the final five exceeded attendance and sales figures from the previous year.
Additions to the Spass Haus, home of the Nowotny Bottle Collection, were made along with improvements to the north end of the grounds in 2003.
In 2004, the loft in the Spass Haus was completed, providing additional seating for visitors and display space for more of the Nowotny Bottle Collection. A state of the art video and sound system was added to enhance the facility for multi-purpose use. Improvements to the grounds continued as well.
2005 saw the beginning of significant change in the park area as the LCRA power plant sold to an Austin developer and plans were announced to construct loft and garden apartments on the large tract of land at the entrance to Landa Park. Wurstfest relocated existing volleyball courts and constructed a 105 space parking lot on Elizabeth Street for the City of New Braunfels, donated $15,000 to the McKenna Children’s Museum project and celebrated 45 years of festival success.
The arts & crafts show moved across the street from the festival grounds to the Knights of Columbus Hall in 2006 allowing for expansion; and millions of television viewers got a taste of Wurstfest when ABC’s Good Morning America Show came to the festival on Opening Day. More than 3,000 local residents arrived at the grounds by 5:30 am that morning to participate in the live, nationwide broadcast.
Wurstfest is a non-profit corporation designed to promote local commerce, especially through tourism, and preserve the community’s heritage. It provides a vehicle for local civic organizations to raise large amounts of money for a wide variety of community projects. Wurstfest is a special event that visitors can attend, enjoy themselves, and leave gratified, knowing that their expenditures will go for worthwhile projects.
Editors Note: This is a followup to our previous article about the parade. The weather was perfect and the turnout was fantastic, both by participants and spectators. The band and singing were great and the speeches were short. A perfect combination.
Click Here to see images from this year's 4th of July parade in downtown New Braunfels.