By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
BERTRAM — Out of the hundreds of festivals held in small towns in Texas every year, probably dozens are dedicated to chili. But there’s only one Oatmeal Festival.
Every Labor Day weekend thousands of visitors swell the town of Bertram for two days of grain-based fun.
This year marks the festival’s 40th anniversary, which kicks off Friday, Sept. 2, at the Oatmeal Community Center with live music, barbecue, an auction, and the Miss Oatmeal Pageant.
The festival continues on Saturday in Bertram where visitors can participate in a fun run, compete in an oats-based bake-off, or catch the floats and pet parade making their way downtown — where the Bertram Air Force will air-drop 50 pounds of oats to rain over the procession. Stick around Saturday evening for a street dance downtown.
Planning for the weekend’s events starts in February for the 15 members of the Oatmeal Festival Association’s board of directors, who call themselves the “Bowl of Directors.”
“It’s going to be an oat-rageous time,” Otto Pfahl, a member of the board, said. “We’ve now had 40 years of practice.”
The festival began in 1978 as the “First Annual Shin Oak Ridge Festival, Intergalactic Oatmeal Cookoff, and Bertram Acceleration Days.”
Its purpose, according to the festival’s legend, was to garner attention after Texas’ 1977 official state map had failed to include Oatmeal. Then, as now, the community had a population of roughly 20.
Evidently, the first festival organizers’ plan worked. In 1983, Texas Gov. Mark White officially declared Sept. 2 and 3 that year as “Oatmeal Festival Days,” and urged Texans across the state to attend.
He noted in his proclamation that proceeds from the festival in years past had gone on to fund civic projects in Bertram — such as a new basketball court, repairs to the public swimming pool, sponsorship of a baseball team, assistance to the local E.M.S, the purchase of a stock show animal for local youth, and more.
While the festival has grown since then, with 2017 including over 60 vendors and artisans, its purpose to fund civic projects has remained a constant.
In recent years, the Oatmeal Festival Association has annually awarded five scholarships to graduating high school seniors in the area who volunteer for the festival.
“A lot of kids help out. Some help more than others, and some don’t even turn in an application for the scholarship,” Pfahl says.
One of the five scholarship winners last year was Kelsey Westen, a third-generation Bertram resident who now studies Health Science at Angelo State University.
“The Oatmeal Festival has always been a part of my life,” she wrote in a Facebook message to The Independent, adding that she won the festival’s Ms. Oatmeal Cookie pageant in 2010. “It’s a small town, and the whole town participates.”
A pervasive reference to cut oats and oatmeal, primarily through puns, has also featured prominently in the festival’s identity since the early days.
This includes the festival’s decision to list event times by the hour’s three-minute mark, such as Friday’s “Arts & Crafts” beginning at 5:03 p.m., or Saturday’s Pet Parade at 9:33 a.m.
The detail is a nod to one of the festival’s major sponsors, National Oats, who produce a brand product called 3 Minute Oats.
According to the event’s legend, the national company was the only one to give a response to an Oatmeal community member after he wrote to every major oatmeal manufacturer in the country.
Through the thick of local lore and oatmeal puns, one thing is clear. Oatmeal, Texas, is on the map.