Skip to main content
Original Issue

Having themselves a blast

The Luckenbach World's Fair had more going for it than fried rattlesnake meat—a cannon contest featuring real shot and shell, for instance

On the morning of the first day of the big cannon shoot, the farmer across the road said mama had decided she didn't want those people on her property after all. That meant the cannons had to be wheeled back into downtown Luckenbach, where a new range had to be cleared. It caused something of a problem because Luckenbach was holding its first annual world's fair at the time.

The hill country of Central Texas has a colorful history, but never anything like the Luckenbach World's Fair. To start with, the town of Luckenbach is peculiar enough. Luckenbach has a general store that began in 1849 as an Indian trading post and has operated ever since. It has a cotton gin, a post office, a saloon attached to the general store, a dance hall, a few other buildings, a horse-operated sugarcane grinder for making molasses, two creeks and somewhere between four and 11 residents, depending on whom you happen to ask.

The general store does about a third of its business in barter, swapping chicken feed and groceries for eggs and milk. Many of the farmers in the surrounding hills are industrious and determined descendants of Germans who settled the area more than 100 years ago after being hustled into a big real-estate promotion across the ocean. German is still spoken as the first language in many farmhouses in the rough cedar-and oak-covered countryside.

But Luckenbach never would have gotten around to holding a world's fair if a young man named Bill Koock, known by everybody as "Guich" (pronounced Gitch), hadn't learned three years ago that Luckenbach was for sale. Guich called up his friend Hondo Crouch, who was an All-America swimmer at the University of Texas before Guich was born, and they bought the town. Later Kathy Morgan, a rancher, came in as a partner. Luckenbach is a congenial place. The dance hall does a good business on Saturday night, the general store keeps busy enough, and there is a nice trade in molasses. Painters and people working with handcrafts started hanging around town. Pretty soon they asked if they could have an arts and crafts fair in Luckenbach. "We talked it over and said, sure," recalls Guich. "Then we thought, why not make it a world's fair?"

Thus the Luckenbach World's Fair. Tents, booths, trailers, camper trucks set up all over the place. There were silversmiths, sculptors, leatherworkers, antique dealers, painters, a taxidermist, a whittler, an ironsmith and a booth that sold hand-carved lead soldiers. Chalupas, enchiladas and sausage and beans were available. A man from South Texas brought in 600 pounds of rattlesnake meat, fried it and sold it out of a tent for 50 cents a piece. It's true. Rattlesnake meat does taste like chicken.

Now they had all this stuff, but would anybody show up?

Tony Bell would certainly show, because he had helped organize the world's fair cannon shoot, and he and his wife Claire had two of the five cannons entered. Tony is an Austin artist who also does things like buy old moose heads and battle flags and build full-scale replicas of World War I airplanes and decorate bars by hanging machine guns from the ceiling. In a friend's garage he built the bat boat for the Batman TV show. Lately he has been interested in cannons. The first time Tony fired his cannon—a muzzle-loading parrott gun that he cast—was on a hill west of Austin. The noise was terrific. Louder than any rock band. Tony loved it. A sheriff's car screamed up to the hill and a deputy jumped out. Tony thought he might be arrested. Instead, the deputy yelled, "Hey, man, do it again."

On the first day of the cannon shoot in downtown Luckenbach, the place kept getting more and more crowded until by late afternoon at least 11,000 people were roaming around. Off to one side of the cannon range, bands were playing. Behind the range was the fried-rattlesnake tent. On three sides of the range were lines of craft and antique booths. At the end of the range, about 100 yards down, was a stack of hay bales. Beyond the hay bales was a levee that was supposed to catch the high shots. But right in front of the hay bales was a constant parade of world's fair tourists who seemed unable to comprehend that the cannons aimed at them were shooting real cannonballs powered by real black powder.

"Live ammo! Live ammo! Get out of the way, woman! We don' want blood and guts all over the range!" shouted Randal Gilbert, who was dressed up like a Civil War officer. Gilbert's cannon crew and accompanying musketeers were all dressed in some form of Civil War garb, as befits members of the Austin Reenactment Society. The woman finally understood and hurried off. Bam! The cannonball bounced in front of the hay bales, sailed over the levee and clipped branches from pecan trees. "They're ruining my business," said the lady in the antique booth beside the hay bales. "I ought to be selling helmets and breastplates."

On the second and final day of the Luckenbach World's Fair the antique and crafts booths had disappeared from the sides of the cannon range and an outhouse had been erected in front of the hay bales. The outhouse was the target for the contest. Another 8,000 people had arrived for the fair. Still around was a cannon team from the Zeta Theta chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity from Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, alma mater of LBJ.

Explosions rattled the bottles of black draught on the shelves in downtown Luckenbach. Smoke and the smell of powder drifted in the fierce heat. Cannons of all sizes fired nine shots each, five for the record. The fraternity cannon hit the outhouse four times out of five, Claire Bell and her crew hit it three, Tony and several others also claimed to have hit it three. "Those fancy guys," said Claire, pointing at the Reenactment Society, many of them shirtless now and sweating and rather disgruntled, "they never did hit it at all." The outhouse was still standing, but not for long. All the cannons were pulled forward 50 yards and arranged to deliver a broadside. "Put in a double canister. We'll hit it one way or another," said Randal Gilbert. A man and a woman strolled across the top of the levee. "Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!" shouted the cannoneers.

Bam!...Bam!...Bam!...a raggedy broadside, the fuses burning down at different times. The smoke cleared. The outhouse had vanished. Blown to bits. "Far out!" yelled a cannoneer. The crowd cheered. Tony Bell was happy. "Next year the fair ought to draw cannons from all over the country," he said. "I'm hoping we can get a bigger range." The arts and crafts people feel the same way.