Fort Worth's Mayfest opens, celebrating four decades of family-friendly festivals

FORT WORTH -- Four decades ago, a little family festival was held on the banks of the Trinity River.

Over the years, the celebration exploded, much like the confetti from thousands of cascarones crushed on festgoers' heads.

First called the Trinity River Festival, but long since known as Mayfest, the party started again Thursday and runs through Sunday with food, music, art, crafts and family-oriented activities for all ages.

Susan Tilley, who headed the first festival in 1973, said the concept came from a group of people who "just wanted to have fun."

Tilley said she never dreamed the early two-day festival with a "zero budget" would blossom from a few hundred participants to more than 200,000 over a four-day run.

The story begins in 1972, when the Junior League agreed to sponsor a money-raising festival with the Streams and Valleys Committee and Tarrant County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1. A festival committee got permission from the Fort Worth parks board to stage an event the following May. The parks board also agreed to be a sponsor.

On Thursday, longtime organizers and fans gathered at Trinity Park for an opening ceremony for the city's oldest family festival. They paid homage to Mayfest's mission: to raise money for community programs for awareness and improvement of city parks and the Trinity River.

During its four decades, Mayfest Inc. has given $6.2 million to its beneficiaries, including the Junior League of Fort Worth, Streams and Valleys, and the Fort Worth Parks and Community Services Department.

Some remember the funny story about the raccoon that climbed up a police officer as he sat in a chair and jumped off his head. A raccoon was added to the Mayfest logo the next year and again this year.

Lisa O'Connor, 1999 Mayfest chairwoman, recalled that was the year that Mayfest first ordered confetti eggs, or cascarones, from a retail outlet. Previously, volunteers had blown out the eggs gathered from local farmers. Unfortunately, the eggs attracted rats and bugs to volunteers' homes.

"We never touched another rotten egg, and history was made," said O'Connor, vice president of the Mayfest board of directors.

In 2003, the logo featured a squirrel -- Twiggy the Water Skiing Squirrel.

"I'm looking forward to the squirrel," said former Councilman Carter Burdette, 78. "And the sausage and beer, too."

Mother Nature is expected to cooperate this year, with blue skies and highs in the upper 80s and lows in the upper 60s, according to the National Weather Service forecast.

Organizers are relieved. The festival has had its weather woes. On May 5, 1995, a hailstorm and heavy rain caught thousands of festgoers out in the open and injured dozens of people.

Then, in 2009, a swine flu scare led to the fest's cancellation just hours before the gates were to open. Mayfest lost about $500,000, and reserves were tapped to repay some vendors and sponsors. But community donations helped revive the festival.

Although 2009 was haunted by the "invisible pig," City Parks Director Richard Zavala said, "we put lipstick on the pig" in 2010 when visitors arrived in droves.

Marty Sabota, 817-390-7367