The Neches River Festival (NRF) has remained one of the most illustrious events in Beaumont since its inception in the late 1940s. The festival, in its 66th year, continues to be a mainstay, celebrating youth, tradition and the Neches River, a priceless resource for Southeast Texas.
A festival is born
Envisioned in the spring of 1947, plans for the first NRF were well underway by 1948, and on May 12, 1949, a charter was obtained from the state of Texas for a non-profit organization named the Neches River Festival Inc.
The first NRF was held May 28-29, 1949, at the City Docks in Beaumont with 18 races, visiting yachts, and hundreds of spectators lining the docks.
The first royal court was comprised of 11 duchesses and six princesses.
Sixty-six years later, the festival remains an important annual celebration and fixture in Southeast Texas.
Nancy Fertitta, executive director of the NRF, said there are more than 100 volunteers involved in the planning and labor of the festival, not to mention the year-long work carried out by the board of directors and more than 40 chairmen that help make the event possible.
The festival is also supported by The Knights of the Neches, more than 300 members strong.
“They are a huge part of the festival,” Fertitta said. “It’s a pretty big undertaking as far as volunteers are concerned.”
The festival’s namesake, the Neches River, has been an important source of economic development for Southeast Texas since the 1800s.
Southeast Texas’ priceless resource
“After the Spindletop boom of 1901, the Neches basin … became the site of large-scale oil exploration,” the Texas State Historical Association website states. “The growth of the oil industry led to the development of the Beaumont-Port Arthur-Orange metropolitan area as a major site for oil refining, processing and shipping.”
And the river’s value is not just measured in dollars.
“The Neches River is an irreplaceable asset,” Texas Conservation Alliance’s website states. “Its bottomland forests provide timber to area mills and terrific recreational and scenic opportunities to Texans. The Neches is the heart of the Central Flyway, with millions of waterfowl depending on the river on their yearly migrations. The River sustains the Big Thicket National Preserve, national forests, state parks, and wildlife refuges on its way to the Sabine-Neches estuary.”
This year’s King Neches, Patrick Phelan, said some of the fondest moments of his life were spent on the Neches River. He especially remembers water skiing on the river as a child, something that scores of Southeast Texans enjoy each year.
“People take the Neches River for granted, but it’s a wonderful river,” Phelan said. “I hope people can continue to enjoy it in the future.”
The Neches River Festival continues to serve as a reminder of the importance of the Neches River as an economic stimulant to this area.
Celebrating the youth
Participants in the NRF may apply for one of two scholarships awarded each year through the Neches River Festival Otho Plummer Scholarship. All participants, including the princesses, duchesses and escorts are eligible. This year the NRF awarded two $2,500 Lamar University scholarships to Alexandra Beltejar, of West Brook High School, and Chandler Lawley, of Monsignor Kelly High School.
In addition to furthering the education of Southeast Texas’ youth, the festival also stresses the importance of carrying on traditions spanning generations.
“It harkens back to earlier days and simpler things,” Fertitta said. “It’s something that the kids really seem to enjoy … something most of them won’t experience again in their lives. Putting on a ball gown or a tuxedo and being on stage isn’t something everybody gets to do.”
“For 66 years, it has been the organization that has promoted the importance of the Neches River and … the young people of our community,” said King Neches Patrick Phelan. “The festival has assumed greater and greater importance in terms of being a showcase for the wonderful young people in our area. What’s kept it going is the commitment of the volunteers and their conviction that the NRF is so conducive to the well-being of the young people.”
Queen Neches LXVI Mary Claire Benning and her family’s involvement spans generations. Her grandmother, Janie Steinhagen, 79, was once Queen Neches, as was her mother, Mary Jane Benning, 54. Her father, the late Bill Benning, is a former NRF king as well.
“It’s the first time a grandmother, a daughter and a granddaughter have been queen,” Mary Claire Benning said. “My grandmother was Queen IV, my mother was Queen XXX and I am LXVI.”
Chelsea Tipton II, Symphony of Southeast Texas music director and 2014 NRF Citizen of the Year, said it is important for today’s youth, who might find themselves enthralled in the digital age and all it has to offer, to take the time to appreciate timeless traditions like the NRF.
“One of the things that is important for us to always remember is where we came from,” Tipton said.
Meet your King and Queen
Through Phelan Investments, King Neches Patrick Phelan has been involved in developing notable real estate in Southeast Texas including the Willow Creek residential area and several commercial shopping centers in Beaumont. A graduate of St. Anthony High School and Lamar University, Phelan has served on the following boards: the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Boy Scouts of America, Kelly High School, and several banks in the area. Phelan was also chairman of the Beaumont Chamber of Commerce, co-chairman of the YMCA fundraising drive and is currently head of the Kelly Foundation.
“He’s just a very well-respected man,” Fertitta said. “He was born and raised in Beaumont and comes from a very large family that has been involved in the community since … almost Spindletop. He’s just a kind, gentle reverent man.”
Phelan and his wife, Kathryn Odom Phelan, will soon celebrate 50 years of marriage.
Phelan is grandfather to eleven and father of seven. His daughter, Phoebe Bossanna, was once Queen Neches, as was his granddaughter, Morgan Meadows.
“It’s a distinct honor to be chosen to represent the Neches River Festival,” Phelan said.
Queen Neches LXVI Mary Claire Benning is a senior at Kelly High School, where she is active in several student organizations including the Humane Society of Southeast Texas Club (secretary), the Kelly Retreat Team, Mu Alpha Theta and Kelly High School Spring into Action.
Benning is also a member of the Symphony of Southeast Texas Youth Guild and works at For Heaven’s Sake, a gift shop in Beaumont.
“I’m very excited, very Benning said of being named queen of the Neches River Festival. “I was shocked and was crying tears of joy.”
Benning said although she is planning on leaving Beaumont to attend Baylor University, the city would always have a special place in her heart.
“Beaumont, for us seniors, will always be our home,” Benning said. “We’ve all grown up here. (The NRF) is something that the whole town is excited about and loves to be involved in.”
“She is just a lovely, outstanding, young lady,” Fertitta said of Benning and why she was chosen. “She is very, very sweet and bright. She has wonderful grades. She’s just a good kid.”
Chelsea Tipton II honored as citizen of the year
Another annual tradition at the Neches River Festival is the opportunity of honoring one of Beaumont’s finest citizens who has tirelessly worked to make a difference in the community.
This year’s citizen of the year, Symphony of Southeast Texas maestro Chelsea Tipton II, is celebrating his fifth season as music director of the Symphony of Southeast Texas. He plays a pivotal role as an advocate for the arts not only in Southeast Texas, but throughout the nation.
Tipton has appeared with numerous major orchestras in the United States, including the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Houston Symphony and Atlanta Symphony, among others.
Tipton even conducted at the greatest stage of them all, Carnegie Hall, leading the Sphinx Competition Showcase gala concert that was the culmination of a 10-city tour.
“He was unanimously chosen by the (NRF) board,” Fertitta said. “Everybody just felt like he had been such an asset to our community. He is very positive, very enthusiastic and, obviously, very dedicated to the symphony and to the community. He is very talented and, I think, has the support of just about every organization and every group in the city.”
Tipton said it was an honor to be named citizen of the year by the NRF board of directors.
“It was a wonderful surprise,” Tipton said. “It shows all the wonderful work we’re doing with the symphony and people are starting to notice.”
Tipton said the NRF is more than merely a reason to remember the importance of the Neches River.
“It’s also a reminder of the wonderful people and wonderful traditions that we have established here in Southeast Texas,” Tipton said.
The NRF will continue for generations to come, as long as the people of Southeast Texas ensure that timeless traditions, the youth and the area’s invaluable resource — the Neches River — each hold a special place in their hearts.