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In 1903, a century before Austin officially started trying to keep itself weird, the city crackled with excitement over a coming attraction: the Austin Street Fair and Carnival to be staged along Congress Avenue in the shadow of the sunset-red granite Capitol dedicated 15 years earlier.
“Something doing from noon till midnight,” the Austin Statesman proclaimed of the December 7-12 event. “The committees have spared neither time nor money to make this the biggest and most elaborate affair that Austin has ever given.”
The Gaskill-Mundy Carnival Company would present “clean, refined, and moral shows,” the Statesman assured. But that didn’t mean tame.
In the wild animal exhibition, two lion cubs christened during carnival week likely would be named “Austin” and “Texas.” Of Electrical Theatre star M’lle Celeste, the Statesman teased: “Once seen, never forgotten. Watch for the girl. Who she is, you will find out in her spectacular fire dance.” And bicycle stunt rider Nicholas Chefalo was set to floor crowds with his terrifying spin around the death trap loop.
Finally, there was the carnival’s 3,000-seat Grecian Stadium to be built just west of the Capitol in a vacant lot near where the Westgate Building, home of Texas Electric Cooperatives and Texas Co-op Power magazine, now stands.
TEC’s headquarters, on the building’s next-to-highest 24th floor, keep the statewide association close to legislative action affecting the 76 electric co-ops it serves. And TEC employees in east-facing offices can easily see, and hear, the myriad happenings on the Capitol grounds below. From marching bands to protest-rally speakers wielding megaphones, the continuum of celebrations and causes forms the mosaic of a diverse state.
Some throngs spilling south from the Capitol onto Congress Avenue resemble a three-ring circus. But most days, the Capitol grounds quietly thrum with the calmness of regular folks doing regular things: people taking pictures of historic monuments, dogs chasing Frisbees, school groups picnicking beneath grandfatherly trees … and couples saying I do.
Regular, as it turns out, is a relative word. In October, under a clear, blue sky, I strolled the grounds one afternoon, testing a theory: With patience, I’d see something captivating. My gaze snagged on a couple posing for photos. Ah. Engagement pictures.
But wait. The couple now stood facing a man in a black suit: “For better for worse, richer or poorer …” Oh my gosh, they’re getting married! I briskly walked over, joining a wedding party of two—the groom’s sister and brother-in-law—and rejoicing for people I didn’t know.
Children played on a nearby hill, and a boy somersaulted all the way down. Rings were exchanged, the groom kissed his bride, and I met the group: Kaycee Jesko, wearing purple heels and a strapless, white, above-the-knee wedding dress; her husband, Stephen Keenan, in a white shirt untucked over golf shorts; his sister, Tisha Kizziar, and her husband, Dustin Kizziar, of Fort Worth; and Jon Wisser, a Travis County senior district court judge who has performed about 100 weddings on the Capitol grounds.
“This is my usual Friday,” Wisser said. “I sent seven guys to prison this morning, and I just sent this one guy to matrimony. He was a lot happier.”
Kaycee, 34, and Stephen, 32, grew up in Texhoma—on the Texas side, they emphasized—on the Texas-Oklahoma border. And before returning home to Guymon, Oklahoma, they’d enjoy a weekend honeymoon in Austin, attending the Texas-Baylor football game.
Just another iconic day on the Capitol grounds. Something doing, all the time.
Camille Wheeler is an Austin-based writer.