Westfest offers Czechoslovakian culture in heart of Texas

Westfest is a Czech Polka Festival held each Labor Day weekend in the Central Texas town of West to celebrate Czechoslovakian dance, food, and culture. This Westfest sign greets visitors from as far away as Russia, Japan Czechoslovakia and Germany, as well as many central Texas residents. Westfest began in 1976 as a means to celebrate the large Czech population that resides in the community.
Jessica Foreman | Reporter

By Jessica Foreman

Labor Day weekend’s 36th annual Westfest offered a wide range of various ethnic entertainment, cultural foods, Czechoslovakian dancing and costumes, competitions and one of the largest parades in Central Texas.

With competitions like horseshoe pitching, tractor pulls, the Kolache 5000 race, and the kolache baking contest, the festival in West attracts visitors from as far as Germany, Czechoslovakia, Russia and Japan, officials said.

The event kicked off Friday, with a preview party that featured Texas country artist Kyle Park, Johnny Lee & The Urban Cowboy Band and the Miss Westfest contest.

Saturday morning began with the annual parade. The West Fair & Rodeo Groups fairgrounds provided visitors with cultural entertainment, food, vendors and carnival rides until after midnight. The festival featured polka bands The Harvesters, Brave Combo and several others.

The Brazos Valley Cloggers from Waco and Csardas Hungarian Dancers from Austin performed Saturday under the fairground pavilions, along with several other acts. The parade of costumes, a colorful and cultural Westfest tradition, showcased original, handmade Czechoslovakian costumes.

Sunday included the morning Westfest Polka Mass, which featured hymns sung to polkas and waltzes. Finally, the crowd favorite, the Zorya Ukrainian Dance Ensemble from Dallas, performed the last dance.

Westfest originated in 1976 when former Dallas Cowboy Bob Lilly purchased the Coors distribution center in Waco. Lilly needed a means to promote and to sell his product.

Lilly’s idea for the first, now retired, event at Westfest was donkey baseball, a game with all the same rules as regular baseball, except that all players ride donkeys.

Lillian Pustejovsky Filer, West Charter member and one of the initial members of the McLennan-Hill Czech Heritage Society of Texas, said Heritage Society members are responsible for many components of Westfest, including coordinating the parade, setting up the grounds and providing nine immigration books with records of Czech families traveling to America.

“We are the backbone,” said Pustejovsky Filer in regard to organizing Westfest. “It’s a lot of work, but we enjoy meeting people.”

The McLennan-Hill Czech Heritage Society of Texas also sponsors the Czechoslovakian Christmas tree during Baylor University’s Christmas on 5th Street, and has provided the cultural tree for the past several years.

Miss Westfest, a definitive staple of the festival, is the annual competition for single women of Czech descent ages 15-21 who live in West.

Contestants are required to perform a series of interviews to participate. This year’s 2011 Miss Westfest, West High School senior Heather Kraemer, said she was “completely in shock” when her name was announced, but was also pleasantly surprised.

“My favorite part of Westfest is family and tradition,” said Kraemer, who is involved in several extra-curricular activities with West High School and her community youth group. “Being [Miss Westfest] is mostly about being with family, and representing my family and town.”

Kraemer’s Miss Westfest responsibilities include signing autographs, taking pictures with fans, participating in the 2012 Westfest parade, and being the public face of Westfest.

Nita Gerik, Westfest director, said an emphasis on family is mostly what Westfest is about.

“I’m a people person,” Gerik said, who has been a part of Westfest since its beginnings. “I like to get the people involved. They love their music, they love their food, their dancing…It’s got the whole family involved. That’s what makes is a success. It’s very family-oriented.”

Gerik said Westfest generates $20,000 to $25,000 of revenue for local nonprofit organizations, and the income allows for five scholarships for West High School students.

Mark Hoelscher with Main & Broadway Beverages Co. in West looks forward to the festival as “a place to see familiar faces.”

“[Westfest] is so well-established, we know what to expect,” said Hoelscher, who played the tuba with the West High School band during the first Westfest parade in 1976. “It’s like a city wide homecoming.”

This year’s Westfest brought in crowds of more than 20,000 and was a family-fun event for all who attended. More information about future Westfest celebrations can be found at westfest.com, where festival organizers feature a running countdown to next year’s event. Next Westfest is only 358 days away.