Renaissance, Texas: Fantasy and Murder at the World's Biggest RenFaire [6]

How a glassblower from Utah turned a tiny Texas town into Renaissance land.

“Renaissance, Texas” is a nine-part, serialized story I’m running exclusively in my newsletter. To read from the beginning with Post 1, click here.

George Coulam caught the Rennie bug the moment he went to his first Renaissance festival in San Francisco in the late 1960s. Originally from Salt Lake City and raised Mormon, Coulam had left the area to complete his master’s in art at the California State University at Northridge, and was teaching glassblowing to festival visitors. Ren fests were new at the time — the creation of Northern California hippies who wanted to experience the revelry, chivalry, and bawdy good times of yore. “It was a time where you could be a true Renaissance man,” Coulam told me. “You could paint, make sculpture, write poetry.”

With his brother’s help, Coulam started his own festival in Salt Lake City, but sought a new location after he said, “the church invited us to leave because we were using some of the students from BYU.” The fair he then held in Jonathan, Minnesota in 1971 was a success, he tired of the relentless Midwestern winters and decided to relocate to a warmer climate.

He began quietly buying up land in Todd Mission, Texas, which was then an economically depressed town of forgotten farms and lumber mills. By the time the locals figured out what his grand scheme was, it was too late: Coulam had already amassed a couple hundred acres.

After the first festival got underway in 1975, the hordes of bawdy Rennies quickly alienated the more reserved town folk. “You’d see these guys walking around with their swords,” Al the Junk Man told me. “People didn’t know what to make of it.”

And as King George and his Rennies discovered, Texans have a way of dealing with strangeness.

“They used to have what they called ‘hippie hangings’ around here,” recalled Cooper, the man who’d left the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for Texas, told me in 2004.

They didn’t actually string up the Rennies, but they gave them ample servings of Texas hell. The good old boys would try to pick fights at local grocery stores, and the cops would chime in too, pulling the Rennies over and writing them up for driving oversized campers or raiding them for smoking pot.

“It was like the end of ‘Easy Rider’ here, but for real,” Cooper said.

“They used to have what they called ‘hippie hangings’ around here.”

Cooper’s assistant Sarah Freeh, who grew up on the Rennie circuit as the daughter of a stained-glass artist, told me she once ventured over to the Thousand Horns roadhouse with some of Coulam’s friends and lasted all of 15 minutes. “They chased us out the door with their shotguns,” she said.

Though the festival was an increasing success, Coulam needed to smooth out things with the locals unless he wanted to live in fear for the rest of his life.

So, by 1982, he executed a plan. Because he had enough land under his ownership to be able to legally incorporate the town, he did so — and then he staged a mayoral election.

In a landslide vote, the few dozen residents — Rennies of course — elected him mayor. “I had a say in what went on around here now,” Coulam said, “I bought up the land, and I got control.” Coulam has made sure that the local artists don’t have to pay personal property taxes; they only pay sales tax.

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Realizing then that the Rennies were here to stay, then formerly reluctant locals started venturing cautiously into the festival grounds. “People saw that we cared about what we were doing,” George says. “This wasn’t just a business, this was our life.” The locals also realized that it was a virtual cash cow — many of the Rennies earn a year’s wages in the six weeks of TRF — that could benefit everyone in town if they could learn to tolerate the oddballs.

And so a precarious truce developed.  Soon Jeff Baldwin, now the TRF’s general manager, began fielding calls from rural Texans who would do anything to slip into a cod piece or petticoat and work the show.  “We had droves of these locals showing up and learning how to speak King’s English,” Baldwin told me, “It was the craziest thing.”

With Coulam as mayor, the locals cashed in. “We realized they were basically okay, and it was good for business,” said Al the Junkman. 

“Before long, the local cops were working security for us,” Coulam told me. The local police in Todd Mission put the image of a jousting knight on their patches.

But they keep a healthy distance. “They live in their world,” he added with a grin, “And we live in ours.”

A couple of hours after he told me this, the parking lot of the festival was filled with the red and blue flashing lights of the police cars and the red and white flashing lights of an ambulance. Brandon Smith lay in a pool of blood, dead, on the ground. And Sheriff Sowell was stepping out of his car, wearing his white cowboy hat, looking at the murder victim and for the person who had done it.

In the next post of “Renaissance, Texas:” the Sheriff of Rennie Town.