Reminiscing Upshur County – Embracing Home and Tradition
By Betty Bivins Cook
As Autumn makes its presence known in East Texas, it reminds Gilmer residents that it’s time to embrace home and tradition with the coming of the East Texas Yamboree.
The Yamboree spans a period of 87 years, in Upshur County. Exceptions were 1943-44 when festivities were not held due to World War II and again in 2020 due to certain world events. And while the outward appearance of carnival rides, parades, livestock show and more may seem like every other festival in the state, its history proves otherwise.
The Yamboree was created back in 1935, to celebrate the return of sweet potatoes, also known as yams. The crop was an important staple to East Texas, but due to a large infestation of weevils in the early 1930s, there was a hold placed on the sale of sweet potatoes. This brought about a dip in the economy.
But, after several years the ban was lifted. Understandably excited, the region decided to celebrate by holding a festival in Upshur County, celebrating the return of the sweet potatoes.
As a fund raiser for the event, high school girls representing various civic clubs in the area spend a period of weeks selling tickets to the Yamboree Pageant. The person who sells the most tickets is named “Yamboree Queen.” The Yamboree Pageant in which the new Queen is crowned is an elaborate, special event for all involved. Many hours of work go into preparation for the one-of-a-kind event.
The Yamboree is the second longest running festival in the state. Those who’ve seen it grow throughout the years say it’s due to the outpouring support of volunteers in the community. However, I’d say it’s growth and longevity are also due in large part to East Texans in our area who, year after year, continue to flock to the carnival and related events, both reliving and sharing the fun and festivity with their children, grandchildren and so on.
Yamboree time is a true staple of the East Texas way of life when we embrace the changing season and participate in a large reunion of sorts that brings us together for some days of relaxation and fun. And, of course, for some a lot of work, but still fun.
The first Yamboree celebration was held ten years before I was born. So, at the time I was old enough to enjoy the festivities, it was still a relatively young celebration.
Still, it had already become a popular event, as it provided a reason for locals to come together for a time of visiting and fun, with something to interest just about anyone.
As a child, one of my favorite parts of the Yamboree was the parades. I was endlessly fascinated by the creative floats, music, and action contained in the parades. Especially exciting to me were the beautiful gowns worn by the school duchesses and the Queen’s court, proudly worn in the parades. The gowns reminded me of the beautiful ones in my favorite paper dolls, something I dearly loved and played with often.
Even that many years back, I can remember how varied the weather conditions could be. It might be cool to the point of needing a sweater. It might be freezing, making a heavy coat a necessity. Or, it might be very warm, even hot, making conditions less fun than other years. Then again, rain might dampen the festivities, even requiring closure of the carnival and cancellation of parades.
I recently read the following description of Texas seasons on the internet, and had to laugh, as it has always been so true in our area.
Spring of Deception
Hell’s Front Porch
For this year, I’d add a designation for “Teaser Fall”. Right now, I’d say the “you are here” arrow points at Second Summer after a few taunting days of Teaser Fall. We had a few lovely cool mornings recently, along with days of lower humidity and temperature; it was so nice.
Then, poof, it was summer again. This cycle will likely repeat a few times throughout our East Texas “fall” months!
One year when I was young, the seasons realigned to combine Noah’s Ark with Fall. For some reason that year, the carnival wasn’t held on the square. It was instead moved just East of town off State Highway 154, in a large field. That year it rained and rained. Daddy had to share the sad news that all the rain had rendered the fairgrounds a sticky, muddy, quagmire. Many vehicles, along with carnival equipment were stuck in the mud and the whole thing had to be shut down. My sister and I were so disappointed.
These seasonal mis-shifts have always been a part of Yamboree weather though, making it necessary to wear layers and have emergency backup clothing in the car just in case. An umbrella might be a good idea too. You just never know for sure.
My daughter remembers one year when she and her brother were a bit older that I let them go do some riding while I was at work. It was really cold, and had rained a lot the day before, leaving puddles in many of the rides. They decided to ride the Octopus and didn’t notice that rainwater had frozen in a solid sheet across the seat. By the time the ride was over, the ice had melted underneath them, leaving two very wet, uncomfortable bottoms for quite a while, till they finally dried out.
As a child, I loved the Yamboree. Daddy and Mother enjoyed the music; they could spend hours listening to gospel music, fiddling, and watching the street dance.
More appealing to me were the lights, smells, and sounds of the carnival wafting through the air, like an invitation to come have fun.
I was a bit timid as a child, and some of the children’s rides were scary for me, but there were a couple that I dearly loved.
First was a ride that had little airplanes suspended on chains that made a circular flight round and round. The airplanes very much resembled my cousin Nancy Smith’s peddle airplane. The ride operated like the swings, but without the height and speed. While that ride raised you up in the air and swung you out as it swiftly rotated (something that scared me mightily), the airplanes just took you on a slow dreamy ride, not going high or swinging out. I could have stayed on that ride forever.
My other favorite ride was the carousel, or as we called it, the Hobby Horses. This ride was a little more daring than the airplanes, as the horses went up and down as the ride circled and calliope music played. However, it wasn’t too fast, and I felt safe on it. I’d watch the crowd as the ride went round and wave at Mother and Daddy and other folks I recognized.
In later years, my sister and I were allowed to accompany Daddy to work on Friday and be dropped off at the square to spend the day at the carnival with friends. I wasn’t keen on most of the larger rides, but definitely enjoyed wandering round and round the square, watching the action and visiting.
One ride I would get on was the Ferris Wheel. As long as I wasn’t sharing a seat with someone who insisted on rocking it, this was a fun ride, elevating me high above the ground where I could see everything from a vastly different viewpoint. The modern version of the Ferris Wheel just isn’t the same. I’m sure there are lots of good safety reasons and regulations that stand behind the use of Gondolas rather than the bench seat, but the view sure isn’t what it used to be.
Mother would give us money for lunch and some rides. We’d be told to eat at the Harmony School booth which was located at the corner beside what is now the Roberts building. The Union Hill booth would be located across Titus St. from that. She didn’t quite trust the carnival food and cautioned us not to eat it. Those were the good days, when the concessions were allowed to fix what they wanted, and unlike now, could sell slices of many different pies and such, made and donated by mothers of students at the school. It just wasn’t the same when all the limiting regulations came to be. Change isn’t always for the betterment of the people.
When Daddy got off work in the evening, he’d pick us up and we’d head home so he could get cleaned up and we could eat supper. Then, we’d often head back to town where he and Mother would settle in to listen to the music while my sister and I continued to roam the square, checking in at the appointed time to head home.
Some years down the road, as an adult, with small children, the Yamboree fun took a new turn. I still enjoyed the festive atmosphere, but more of the pleasure came from seeing my children enjoying the carnival like I had as a child.
Of course, by then, many of the rides were different. The planes were a thing of the past, but there was a ride with cars that went round and round which they loved. Once again, the Hobby Horses were enjoyed. This time though, at least in their early years, I was standing beside the horses as the ride made its circular route, making sure they didn’t slip off.
The parades were still beautiful, with creative themed floats, girls in beautiful gowns, marching bands, classic cars and more. Both children enjoyed them, with the notable exception of Darrell and the fire trucks. When they approached the area where we stood, Darrell declared that the loud sirens “scared his ears”.
Just as the Yamboree had been a time of seeing family and friends for me, it was for my children also. However, it was a bit different. This was a time they got to see cousins that lived as far away as Pennsylvania coming back to Gilmer for the Yamboree. It was a yearly event for many of them.
My mother-in-law, Thelma Cook, and her family, absolutely loved the Yamboree. Every year, a passel of people would load up, lock, stock, kids and pets and head to East Texas to enjoy the festivities. She opened her home to one and all, welcoming them for the duration of the fun. Some came in campers which were parked in the yard, providing that family a place to sleep; others came in cars and had to sleep in the house. There would be pallets all over the place with relatives bedded down.
I can’t imagine hosting such a crowd, but she never missed a beat. In the morning, she’d make her way over the sleeping bodies to the kitchen where she’d prepare a big breakfast for everyone before they all headed to town.
The whole bunch would congregate on the sidewalk in front of what is now Joe’s Place, to watch the parades. Afterwards, the kids and some adults would head off to enjoy rides while the older folks moved their lawn chairs over to the courthouse lawn to visit.
Usually, the whole bunch would hang around through Sunday afternoon, giving the younger cousins some time to play together. It was like a big family reunion, with entertainment!
As my children grew older, Yamboree time took on a different dimension, as both of them were in the marching band. They’d have to be at the school bright and early on both Friday and Saturday to load up on the bus, heading to town to march in the parades. On Fridays, there might be a little time after the parade to Yamboree, but often, the football team had an away game, and they’d have to be back at the school early to load up and head out. On Saturdays, they would have to go pretty much straight from the parade over to Gilmer High School for the Yamboree Marching Contest, By the time this was over, there wasn’t much Yamboree left for them.
The parades and marching contest were another area where the previously mentioned and notoriously fickle East Texas weather caused issues. There were some years that by parade time it was scorching hot, a misery for students in those woolen band uniforms. In those days the uniform consisted of the pants, a white T-Shirt, a long-sleeved tuxedo jacket, and a heavy overlay. They had to wear jeans under the uniform pants so they could shed the uniform between performances. Shorts were not allowed. It was like a sauna inside those uniforms. To top the whole thing off, they wore a heavy hat with a plastic strap under the chin. Definitely not a suit made for comfort in hot weather.
Other years, it was freezing, and the uniforms were a little more welcome, but the cold would affect the instruments. Band members would have to hold mouthpieces in their hand to keep them warm, putting them back on long enough to blow through the instrument to keep it semi warm. They had white cotton gloves to help with cold fingers, but these made it more difficult to play.
One drizzly year came with an additional uniform issue, the infamous plumes. In early days of those military style band uniforms, the plumes that adorned the uniform hats were made of a fluffy, feathery material that stood out beautifully and could handle some moisture, but over time, these had become soiled and bedraggled. So, they were finally retired, and new feathered plumes were purchased. These should have come with a warning to only use in fair weather. One damp Yamboree, showers began during the parade. One by one, the white feathers on these plumes began to stand up, till by the end of the parade, they looked more like sick chickens than plumes. It was hoped that when they were dried and placed back in their storage tubes, they would regain their former appearance. The reality was that they never looked quite the same again, and at the first hint of dampness (common in our humid region) those feathers would pop right up again, looking more like they belonged on a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon than a uniform hat.
Needless to say, band members appreciated the years when the weather was beautiful and mild and all they had to worry about during the parades was dodging the horse poop.
I wasn’t too disappointed when the horses were removed from the parades. The given reasons involved safety, but I was among the group that was just glad there was no more poop in the streets.
The years marched on, and the next thing I knew, my children were grown, and were taking their children to the Yamboree.
I spent many a Wednesday evening (half price ride night) watching them ride the kiddie rides, stare in fascination at the game booths, and munch a funnel cake or cotton candy.
After I began chairing and organizing the Yamboree Gospel Stage, my trips to the parade were more limited, especially on Saturday. On Friday, I might hoof it up to the square from work for the school parade, then grab a sandwich from a vendor and head back to the office to finish up there and head off to set up for the Gospel Stage singing.
After some years, I had grandchildren marching in the parades, dealing with the same issues my children had back in their student days. By this time, the uniforms had improved somewhat, being made of a lighter weight material and having a more combination top that wasn’t quite as uncomfortable as its predecessor. But the fickle weather still caused some uncomfortable moments along the way.
During the grandchildren’s parade days, I made an effort to get to the parades to see them marching, or in some years, riding on a car or float in the parade. It wasn’t always easy to get away from the Gospel Stage, but it meant the world to me to see yet another generation involved in the Yamboree.
Since the last grandchild graduated from high school, I haven’t been to many Yamboree parades. Unlike my late mother-in-law, I didn’t enjoy the cacophony as much, and didn’t have the scads of relatives to meet up with there.
My children and I continue to organize the Yamboree Gospel Stage though and it keeps us pretty well tied up all day Friday and Saturday. But, if you’d like to sit down for a visit, you’re welcome to come on out to the Gilmer Civic Center for a spell. The singing begins at 4 p.m. on Friday, and 11 a.m. on Saturday, going to 9 p.m. both nights. Y’all come!