Conroe architect Richard Willis called them “a small band of gypsies.” Inspired by Cajun music and the common desire to bring a festival to downtown Conroe, a diverse group of about 15 citizens came together for the first time in 1990 to organize the first Conroe Cajun Catfish Festival. It is estimated that more than 1,000 people attended, says the organization’s vice president and festival chairman, Stephen Naleway, and a seed had been planted. Those who had worked so hard formed The Friends of Conroe, Inc., a nonprofit organization, so that the festival could grow and thrive as an annual event.
And grow it did. An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people now attend the Conroe Cajun Catfish Festival each year. About 90 percent of the attendees come from within a 100-mile radius, Stephen says, but others travel from Galveston, Dallas, Austin, and even Louisiana to hear Zydeco, country, and other styles of music performed on three stages, to visit the carnival, and to sample food, merchandise, and hand-crafted items from a variety of vendors.
“It’s the only festival of its kind in the area,” Stephen says. In 1995, the 74th Legislature of the State of Texas designated the Conroe Cajun Catfish Festival as the Official Cajun Catfish Festival of the State of Texas.
Along the way, The Friends of Conroe began sponsoring other entertainment events, all designed to enhance the quality of life in the Conroe area and to support the revitalization of the downtown area. In addition to the Conroe Cajun Catfish Festival, The Friends of Conroe sponsors The Sounds of Texas Music Series at the historic Crighton Theatre, as well as Boogie on the Blacktop. The organization also provides college scholarships to local students and supports many local charitable organizations.
Every October, downtown Conroe is transformed into a festival, and plans are well underway for this year’s 25th annual Conroe Cajun Catfish Festival on October 10, 11 and 12. As always, the festival promises three days of live music on three stages. The “Cajun stage” will feature Zydeco musicians including the Port Arthur Playboys, Wayne Toups, Bayou Roux, Greg Martinez & the Delta Kings, and Geno Delafose. The “Texas stage” will host country musicians such as Kevin Fowler, Josh Ward, Folk Family Revival, Uncle Lucius, and the Josh Fuller Band. The “pub stage,” named after the festival’s mascot, catfish “Willie B. Fried,” will offer an eclectic blend of popular music by such noteworthy groups as the Chubby Knuckle Choir, Double R Nothin, the John Evans Band, Hip Hop Hooray, The .07 Blues Band, and Parker Millsap. On Sunday, there will be a Tejano Day at Heritage Park.
Over the years, many well-known musicians have performed at the Conroe Cajun Catfish Festival, including country sensation Hunter Hayes. Hunter first performed at the festival when he was five years old, playing a squeeze box for tips. According to Stephanie Walls, office manager of The Friends of Conroe, Hunter, now in his early 20s, has performed at 17 previous Conroe Cajun Catfish Festivals.
The Conroe Cajun Catfish Festival is fun for kids, too. The Kid Zone, sponsored by the City of Conroe, offers free activities for children, including rides and inflatables. In addition, the “small fry stage” features performances by dance studio students and other children’s groups. Of course, kids also enjoy the carnival at the festival, which begins on Thursday, October 9. Admission to the carnival is free on Thursday and Friday.
Each year, festival attendees of all ages enjoy sampling the food at the Conroe Cajun Catfish Festival. Many Cajun favorites will be available this year, including seafood gumbo, crawfish étouffée, jambalaya, and alligator on a stick. Attendees will also be able to find typical carnival fare like hamburgers, corn dogs, smoked turkey legs, curly fries, funnel cakes, ice cream, and lemonade.
Each year since 2000, The Friends of Conroe has sponsored a series of concerts at the historic Crighton Theatre. The concert series promises quality entertainment in an intimate venue and brings attention from near and far to the downtown area and the historic theater (constructed in 1935). Past performers include Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Marty Stewart. The 2015 series will offer four concerts between January and August.
Boogie on the Blacktop is a one-day event in the spring that brings live country and western entertainment to a downtown street dance. In addition to the music, Boogie on the Blacktop promises good food and fun.
Scholarships and Support of Local Charities
Among the ways The Friends of Conroe fulfills its goal of bettering life in Conroe is funding college scholarships to deserving students. The Friends of Conroe also supports several local charities, including the Montgomery County Food Bank, Salvation Army Toys for Tots, Montgomery County Emergency Assistance, and the Crighton Theatre. The Friends of Conroe is a loyal supporter of downtown activities and the ongoing revitalization project.
Because this year’s Conroe Cajun Catfish Festival is the 25th annual event, Stephanie is nostalgic about all the people who have been a part of The Friends of Conroe over the years. Stephen, too, remembers the festival’s colorful past and the people who were a part of it. He attended the festival when he was a young boy and now brings his seven-year-old twin daughters to the festival and to other events that The Friends of Conroe produces. Stephanie brings her daughter with her to The Friends of Conroe events as well.
“We thank everyone who has helped us for the past 25 years; we couldn’t have done it without you,” Stephen says. “And we look forward to the next 25 years.” The Friends of Conroe needs volunteers who are interested in bringing a better quality of life to the Conroe area. For more information, call the organization’s office at (936) 539-6009.