Austin Kite Fest Celebrates 90 Years
From 1929 to present, the festival is a constant in a changing city
By Alyssa Hiarker,
7:00AM, Wed. Mar. 27, 2019
Legend has it that on a particularly windy day in China, a farmer tied a string to his hat to keep it from blowing away while he worked. As the wind swept his hat off his head he guided it through the sky with its tether, and the very first kite was created.
More than 7,000 miles away people gather each year at Austin's ABC Kite Fest to celebrate the flying marvels and bring the city together under a color-filled sky.
The first recorded use of a kite dates back to 200 BCE when Chinese General Han Hsin of the Han Dynasty flew one over the gate surrounding an enemy’s city and used it to calculate the distance his militia would have to travel underground before they would successfully enter the city. Along with being used in war, kites have been on the forefront of scientific discoveries – helping the Wright Brothers learn aerodynamics on their journey to building a plane, serving as a crucial piece in Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with a key that established the relationship between electricity and lightning, and assisting 18th century astronomer Alexander Wilson on his investigation of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Down in Austin, the original kite festival was created by national service organization Exchange Club in an attempt to inspire the local youth to get active and spend more time outside. Ever since Exchange Club’s establishment in 1917, local branches have appeared across the country, bringing service to their area, while focusing on the national goal of preventing child abuse.
In 1929, at the inaugural event that would eventually become a city staple, 2,000 people made their way to Lamar Park and let the wind raise their crafts to the sky.
Raising money for the Moss Pieratt Foundation, an organization that focuses on research on Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood, and Communities in Schools of Central Texas, which focuses on making sure that at-risk kids complete and succeed within their educational experience, the ABC Kite Fest offers Austin more than just a good time and a colorful skyline.
Originally, the festival was produced by just Austin’s Exchange Club branch and the handful of spunky volunteers organized and ran every aspect of it. Over time, as it continued to grow, it became more and more difficult for the group to wrangle the necessary sponsors and resources to put it together and have remaining money to donate.
Then, in 2010, as the festival was on the verge of being disbanded, ABC Home and Commercial Services swooped in. In partnership with the Exchange Club, they created the Friends of the ABC Kite Fest, a nonprofit organization with a contract that ensures that the annual celebration will be around for at least the next 50 years.
“This event deserved professional management and it deserved to reach out and be what it could be. At that point, it was beyond the Exchange Club’s ability to keep going with it,” says Dorsey Twidwell, former Exchange Club president.
Within the niche of serious fliers, Austin’s celebration of the sails is considered one of the most important events of the year. People travel from across the world with their intricate handmade fliers made of a myriad of materials, including paper and nylon, that often take over 10 months to craft.
However, just because it’s attended by experienced fliers doesn’t mean there’s not space for novices. The more well-versed pilots have their own dedicated space, while amateurs can set up shop anywhere on the grounds of Zilker.
“We have the contest field fenced off and a place fenced off for the experienced kite fliers for safety reasons; it really is an incredible thing to see,” Twidwell says.
Both Twidwell and Bobby Jenkins, the owner of ABC Home and Commercial Services, are excited for the potential growth of the festival, as it adapts to meet the needs of an ever-changing community. Despite any possible changes in the future, one thing will remain the same, the focus is on Austin.
As Jenkins puts it, “Things may change, but the will of the people, the will of the city, and the will of the children coming to Zilker Park will not.”
The 90th annual ABC Kite Fest is March 31, 10am-5pm at Zilker Park. Admission to the festival is free, but some adjacent events, such as the Anteater Fun Run, require a registration fee. For more information and updates, visit www.abckitefest.org.