Camp Ben McCulloch is a living reminder of old Texas traditions. The last Confederate veterans reunion ground in the South still serves all Central Texas residents as a recreation facility 106 years after it was organized.
In addition to being a prime swimming hole and campground, the scenic park on the banks of Onion Creek off FM 1826 in northern Hays County hosts the Old Settler's Music Festival this weekend, April 19-21. The 15th anniversary of the festival offers a winning combination of a great musical lineup, creekside camping, and world-famous Salt Lick barbecue in a relaxed environment that the whole family can share and enjoy.
The music festival started in Round Rock in 1987 and moved to the Hill Country south of Austin in 2000. This year's music will fill three stages at the Salt Lick Pavilion with overnight accommodations at the campground. The organizers have chosen one of the most beautiful public areas in Central Texas for a weekend of music.
The idyllic 200-acre park is surrounded on three sides by the tree-lined creek with a flat, open field in the center. Year round the campground is underutilized on most weekends except by carnivores who want to walk off a few pounds after visiting the Salt Lick Barbecue across the road.
Camp Ben McCulloch is the last Confederate reunion campground still owned by the original organization, says Eva Long of Driftwood. It was once part of a network of more than a thousand veterans clubs across Texas. All of the other campgrounds have been incorporated into civic parks or sold.
Every year the week of the full moon in June (June 14-21, 2002) as many as 6,000 people show up at the gathering for what started as three days of bingo, barbecue, dancing, and memorial services. They had so much fun that the festival has stretched to five days, with social activities every evening.
The last veteran of the post died in 1947 at the age of 108, and the United Confederate Veterans became the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy. With about 200 members, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren open the park to free daytime use and camping for $10 without electricity or $15 with electricity. Nailed to the trees are names of the families that still participate in the annual gathering. "Those spots are reserved during the reunion," Long says. For information or to make reservations, call 512/858-1085.
The park is named for Benjamin McCulloch, a native of Tennessee who came to Texas following David Crockett. Only a bad case of the measles prevented him and his brother from arriving at the Alamo before its capture by the Mexican Army in 1836. McCulloch served in the Texas army, then as a Texas Ranger fighting Indians on the frontier. During the Mexican-American War he was chief of scouts for Col. Jack Hays' Texas regiment.
After being elected to the state Legislature, McCulloch served briefly in the U.S. Cavalry and was then appointed governor of the Utah Territory. When the War Between the States began, Col. McCulloch accepted the surrender of the federal arsenal at the Alamo. He was killed at the Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas in 1862.
The first reunion at the campground occurred in the summer of 1896. Before electricity, couples whirled around the dance floor under the full moon accented by torchlight. Over the years the organization has added a tabernacle that looks like a giant barn without walls. There is a dining hall that also serves as a bingo hall. Restrooms and cold-water showers are available for use by guests. Many of the stone picnic tables with the members' names carved in the tops and other improvements were done by the WPA in 1930.
The festival will be holding music workshops in the covered pavilions as well as on the dance floor at the campground. A free shuttle service will ferry concertgoers from Camp Ben to the Salt Lick Pavilion on the other side of the road and the creek where the stages and vendors will be set up.
This year's lineup includes Darden Smith and Michelle Shocked on Friday night, Peter Rowan and Bruce Hornsby on Saturday night, the South Austin Choir and Two High String Band on Sunday morning, plus a long list of other musicians and bands.
The gates open at 2pm on Friday with the music beginning at 4pm on Friday, noon on Saturday, and 9am to noon on Sunday. Camping is free but requires the purchase of a three-day pass. Admission for Friday is $25, Saturday is $35, and Sunday only is $10. Children 15 years old and younger are free when accompanied by a paying adult. For more information, call 812/370-4630 or go to www.oldsettlersmusicfest.org.
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