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WE LOVE A PARADE: The magic of Central Texas

0322
 2016


Luling’s 2015 Watermelon Thump queen Kyleigh Peters participates in her hometown parade. (Photos by Jay Godwin)

By Denise Gamino 
 
More than 20 years ago, Tandra and Bubba Damon answered a newspaper ad looking for someone to get the show on the road. The beloved red-and-green Luling Watermelon Thump parade float — a version of which has entertained crowds since 1954 — needed to be hauled from one small town festival to another throughout Central Texas to promote tourism. The Damons, a young married couple with a baby, needed extra income and were hired as the official float freighters.

(Sarah Beal photo)Luling’s 1988 Watermelon Thump queen Tandra Damon and husband, Bubba, have hauled the Thump float to hundreds of small-town parades over the past 20 years.
 
But, over the years, their behind-the-scenes job expanded into much more than just longhaul transport on weekends. They have become surrogate parents to the annual Watermelon Thump queen who rides the float: leaving Luling at 5 a.m. on Saturday mornings with a sleepy teenager allows lots of time to discuss life’s ups and downs. 
 
“I’m your second momma, because I’m gonna be with you every weekend,” Tandra tells each Thump queen. 
 
Tandra knows the drill; she was Thump queen in 1988 and the Damons’ daughter, RaVana, was Thump queen in 2009. 
 

(Photo courtesy of Kyleigh Peters)Former Luling Watermelon Thump queen Tandra Damon pins the crown on 2015 Thump queen Kyleigh Peters before a parade. Thump duchess Natalie Reyna is far left; behind Damon is duchess Brandy Glover.
The Damons have become civic ambassadors on a first-name basis with scores of out-of-town festival officials. And they are DIY designers who tweak displays on the Thump float every few years to keep it fresh. The current $9,000 Thump float has a miniature black pump jack in honor of Luling’s oil history and three-dimensional watermelon slices, including a large one serving as a backdrop for the queen’s podium. 
 
Until recently, the Damons even stored the Watermelon Thump parade float at their house on the outskirts of Luling.
 
Tandra and Bubba Damon are parade people, part of a sprawling unsung backstage network that keeps community parades in Texas as big and popular as ever, even in today’s fast-paced world. Annual parades in small Texas towns can last for hours because of the large number of festooned floats, decorated cars and trucks, marching bands, horses and riders, and dignitaries who often walk the route. 
 
Luling’s Watermelon Thump parade is one of the largest small-town parades in Texas. In 2015, the Thump parade had 45 large, colorful floats, most featuring the local festival queens from small towns as far away as Lampasas, 120 miles northwest of Luling. 
 
The Watermelon Thump parade is June 25 this year. 


ABOVE: Since 1881, Maifest in Brenham has celebrated German heritage with an annual parade and festival. (Jay Godwin photo) MIDDLE: A colorful float with elaborate trains for the Maifest royalty was a crowd pleaser. (Jay Godwin photo) BOTTOM: Photos from 1929 capture glimpses of the Central Texas parade scene back in the day. A peacock float is decorated in all its glory for the 1929 Maifest parade.1 A crowd bustles as the procession rounds a corner at the town, square in Brenham.2 Maifest originated in Germany but today enjoys widespread popularity in German-settled areas. (1 Winkelmann Photograph Collection, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin, image e_wk_0260; 2 Winkelmann Photograph Collection, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin, image e_wk_0257)
“In a small town, you wouldn’t think they’d have (so many) floats, but it’s quite a thing,” said Robert Middleton, owner of Southwest Parades in San Antonio. “It’s kind of a Texas thing.” 
 
Middleton knows parades. His company builds floats for San Antonio’s renowned annual 11-day Fiesta, whose Battle of Flowers Parade is the second largest parade in the country, dwarfed only by the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif., to celebrate New Year’s Day. 
 
Middleton’s decades-old company built several Watermelon Thump floats, a recent first-ever float for Karnes City, floats for Buccaneer Days in Corpus Christi, and H-E-B’s traveling grocery float. In the past, Southwest Parades has built floats for Lockhart and Pleasanton, among others. In the past, Southwest Parades has built floats for Pleasanton, Karnes City, Sinton and Poteet, among others. 
 
Today’s all-weather floats are made of plastic floral sheeting and fringe. Decades ago, floats were created by pushing tissue paper flowers into chicken wire, but rain and wind could damage them. Real flowers are rarely used for floats, Middleton said, because they wilt so quickly. 
 
“Every one of these small towns has a float,” Middleton said. “It’s something. It’s a whole different culture, I tell you.’’ 
 
Here’s how it works: Many small towns have an annual festival, such as the Watermelon Thump, that includes crowning a high school student as queen, with runner-up contestants serving as her court. They ride on the official festival float, not only in the hometown parade but also in parades held in other small towns celebrating their own local festivals. 
 
“You come to my parade and I’ll go to your parade,” is the agreement among small towns, Middleton said. “In other words, if Luling goes to Yoakum (for its annual Tom Tom Festival honoring the tomato), then Yoakum is obligated to come back to Luling’s parade.” 
 
Kyleigh Peters was crowned queen of Luling’s Watermelon Thump in June 2015 and the very next weekend began appearing in other festival parades with her princess and duchess court. Kyleigh traveled with her mother and Tandra Damon to Seguin (Independence Day), Lampasas (Spring Ho Festival), Moulton (Jamboree), Schulenburg (Schulenburg Festival), Fredericksburg (Gillespie County Fair), LaGrange (Fayette County Fair), Karnes City (Lonesome Dove Fest), New Braunfels (Comal County Fair), Halletsville (Kolache Fest), Gonzales (Come and Take It Celebration), Yorktown (Western Days), Pleasanton (Cowboy Homecoming) and Flatonia (Czhilispiel) before breaking for the winter months. 

(Photo courtesy of Kyleigh Peters)Kyleigh Peters takes a selfie with boyfriend Justin Hardin (left), mother Carrie Gray (right) and brother Aiden Gray (center).
The trio, and Kyleigh’s court, will begin traveling most weekends again in April to attend the Poteet Strawberry Festival, Fiesta in San Antonio, the Buccaneer Days festival in Corpus Christi and other springtime parades. Kyleigh is obligated to travel to other parades to earn the $1,250 Thump queen scholarship. 
 
Parade travel is not posh. 
 
Tandra Damon usually drives a red or green pickup donated by Luling Chevrolet for the weekend drive. She not only hauls the 3,500-pound float along the highway, she also pulls it during each parade. Sometimes, Tandra provides a unique dressing room for the Thump queen after pulling into the pre-assigned float slot in a parade staging area early in the morning. 
 
There is no green room for parade royalty in small towns. Kyleigh’s Thump queen dress is a white Cinderella-like ball gown with a big hoop skirt. Tandra holds the dress up high, allowing the skirt to completely hide Kyleigh as she slips off her Thump T-shirt and shorts. 
 
“I put my dress on right there on the street by the car,” Kyleigh said, and, “I can do my hair without looking and I can do most of my makeup without looking.” 
 
Tandra drives alone these days because of Bubba’s work schedule and because he can’t draw a hauler’s check now that he’s on the Board of Directors for the Watermelon Thump. But the ever-entertaining Bubba continues to give each Thump Queen a nickname. He teases Kyleigh Peters with “Pugsly,” a word that popped into his head for no particular reason. 
 
Bubba Damon’s thump chaperone role, which included reading the local newspaper to the Thump queen and explaining a town’s historical highlights, is immortalized in the 2007 book “Way Off the Road: Discovering the Peculiar Charms of Small-Town America” by Bill Geist, a CBS Sunday Morning show correspondent. The book captures the then-outgoing Thump queen, Catherine Johnson, thanking Bubba in her emotional farewell address: 
 
“Bubba truly made an impact on me…Bubba taught me to just lay back and laugh...One time I passed out and Bubba threw me over his shoulder…The Saturdays that were the best were just me and Bubba, the two of us… Thanks, Bubba, for making this year everything I wanted and some things I didn’t want.” 
 
Bubba chokes up when he reads that passage. 
 
“We were in Fredericksburg,” Bubba said. Catherine’s mother, riding in the pickup with Bubba as they pulled the float, glanced out the back window at her daughter and said, “She doesn’t look well.” 
 
Bubba reacted immediately. “I stopped the truck (in the middle of the parade), ran up on the float and she just fell and I caught her.” She had fainted from the heat. 
 
Another parade moment Bubba can’t forget occurred with Thump queen Raven Robbins and her father, who rode shotgun with Bubba during a parade. “Her dad just looked out the back window and said, ‘She’s beautiful, isn’t she?’ It just touches your heart to hear someone talk about their daughter that way.” 
 

(Jay Godwin photo)Children ride on the Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative float in the 2015 Maifest parade.

(Jay Godwin photo)Tim Bosse drives a John Deere Model 70 in the 2015 Cotton Gin Festival parade in Burton.
Parade trips are buddy trips. Enduring memories are made backstage as well as in the limelight. Many people may believe that a town’s float gets its moment in the sun only once a year. But every town has volunteers or paid staff who work nearly year-round to travel with the float to show off their town’s colors, legends and mascots, be they watermelons, peaches, strawberries, tomatoes or a Texas Revolution flag. 
 
The roadie life of a Texas community float is “a little quiet story no one knows about,” says Bill Perryman of San Antonio, who was part of Luling’s parade production team in the 1980s and 1990s. He designed the Watermelon Thump float that won the top trophy in the 1986 Texas Sesquicentennial parade. That float celebrated 150 years of Texas history with a replica of the San Jacinto monument, a revolving star, a fabricated horse-drawn wagon filled with watermelons and a backdrop of the six flags of Texas. Perryman is now a professional history tour guide and educator who performs historical character portrayals such as Sam Houston and Paul Revere in school classrooms as part of a Texas Commission on the Arts program. Parade float work may go unrecognized, but the travel and time make it possible for tens of thousands of Texans to celebrate their community once a year with a warm embrace from other towns. 
 
“There’s a tremendous sense of pride in a parade and a festival,” Perryman said. “It helps develop that sense of community.”

Click here for a list of parades in the Bluebonnet area. 

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