Renaissance, Texas

Written by David Kushner, Disruptor

Sunday September 26th, 2021

Fantasy and murder at the world's biggest Renaissance festival.

Brandon Wayne Smith came to the Texas Renaissance Festival on October 16, 2004 for the same reason as anyone: to party like it was 1599. A clean-cut 23-year-old Second Class Petty Officer in the Navy, Smith had grown up as a Boy Scout in nearby Spring, Texas. After having served six months at sea on the USS Gonzalez and being stationed in Norfolk, Smith was home visiting family for some much-needed R&R.

They drove 40 miles through the back roads northwest of Houston to the two-square mile town of Todd Mission to attend America’s largest Renaissance festival.

In a lot of ways, the town of Todd Mission resembles the sort of rugged cowboy country one might expect northwest of Houston: There was a boarded-up roadhouse called the Museum of a Thousand Horns, once a bar notorious for its patrons’ habit of carrying concealed deadly weapons and its motto, “The horniest place in Texas.” Off the roadside, a junk dealer named Al sat glowering in a rickety armchair on his scrap-strewn lawn, the words “Fuck You” tattooed across the top of his bald, weathered head.

But tucked in the woods off of the main roadway, Farm Road 1774, was a 55-acre working recreation of a 16th-century European village. Manicured marigold gardens and cobblestone pathways spread across the lush property, which included a full jousting arena modeled after the Roman Coliseum rising alongside a lake. There were alehouses, blacksmith stalls, and puppet booths. The public pillories in the center of the festival were among the more popular photo ops.

After a long day of eating turkey legs and watching jousting competitions, Smith and his family headed out past the reenactors in their long, regal robes for the village exit shortly after 7:00. The nightly fireworks display was about to begin, and they wanted to grab a good viewing spot in a field nearby.

They never made it.

Soon after, Grimes County Sheriff Don Sowell was notified that a man — Smith — had been stabbed dozens of times and was dead. Sheriff Sowell, a stocky, gray-haired Texan who wore a white cowboy hat, had grown up nearby, and decorated his office with black-and-white photos and bobbleheads from “The Andy Griffith Show,” a sixties-era TV show about the sheriff of a small town in North Carolina not unlike Todd Mission.

Most crimes around the RenFaire were small things — a kid recklessly driving a four-wheeler, a petty theft. Smith’s death was the first violent crime, and the killer was still at large. And Sowell didn’t know what to make of the crime, let alone the Rennies who call Todd Mission their home. “They just travel around the country following Renaissance festivals, it’s like a carnival,” he tells me. “A carnival cult.”

When a reporter from the Houston Chronicle asked George “King George” Coulam, the eccentric 67-year-old founder of the Texas Renaissance Festival and the mayor of Todd Mission, for comment about the murder, Coulam cited the long history of peaceful coexistence between the town and the festival. “We have been operating for 30 years and never had a problem,” he said, “The sheriff’s happy with us. We run a good show.”

The murder at the Renaissance faire shocked everyone who happened to be there that night – including me. I had flown down to Houston, and driven out to Todd Mission to meet Coulam and attend the festival. I trailed him for days leading up to the RenFaire, hanging out with him and his staff in the sprawling mansion he’d built on a 193 acres of loblolly pines nearby. “People who come here really get with it,” he told me, “I’m just providing them a platform to live out their fantasies.”

On the day of Smith’s murder, I had spent several hours at the festival trailing Coulam as he tended to his flock. At about 7:30 p.m., I was heading out to my car when I saw a scuffle break out about 10 yards away I didn’t know until the next day that someone had been murdered.

Now, with the 47th annual Texas Renaissance Festival beginning on Oct. 9 — the Delta variant be damned — I started thinking about it again, going through my notes and interviews. I wondered what happened that night, what became of “King George,” now 83, and the fantasy world he’d created.

“King” George Coulam, founder of the Texas Renaissance Festival, on his throne

An avid student of art and architecture, Coulam bought up land in Todd Mission 47 years ago to fulfill his dream of creating a permanent theme town devoted to his favorite period in art history. “The Renaissance was a great and meaningful period, a time unequaled in science, art, and education,” he told me in 2004.

Coulam was gangly and ornery, chewed a lot of gum, and had wavy salt-and-pepper hair. He preferred his feathered Tudor cap, pointy leather boots, and zebra-striped leggings to the more typical dungarees and 5-gallon hats the local cowpokes wear. “We need to go back and rejuvenate the enjoyment of beauty, the glorification of our surroundings,” he said, “That’s why I created this festival here,” he said of the spectacle he’d first opened to the public in 1974.

Ever since, for eight weeks every fall, this town hosts the Texas Renaissance Festival for an estimated 500,000 tourists and self-described “Rennies” — Deadheads of the Ren fest circuit. The TRF, as fans call it, employees 3500 people each season, many of whom roam the grounds in period garb.

But what separates the TRF from the garden variety Ren faire is that, after the festival ends and the visitors go home to sleep off their mead and turkey leg hangovers, several hundred Rennie artists, craftsmen, psychics and jugglers remain. They live behind the festival grounds in their own makeshift neighborhood called RenFaire Village. “George started this project, so it’s kind of like an artist community back there,” TRF general manager Jeff Baldwin tells me, “He sold lots to artists for cheap.”

Coulam — or as friends all call him “King George,” or just “The King” — is the inspiration for these modern-day would-be Lords and Ladies, drawing them to his odd oasis deep in the heart of Texas. For those who live the full time Rennie lifestyle, Todd Mission felt like a safe haven for their Medieval fantasies, no matter how freaky that life seemed to the cowboys nearby.

But, as I’ve learned in returning to this old story of mine, the sanctity of Todd Mission, a town of just 107 people, has been shattering again.

Last October during the faire, 19-year-old Isabella Cimetta was shot to death in the Festival campgrounds. #MeToo came knocking as well, with two lawsuits in the last three years accusing King George of sexual harassment and discrimination. The suits were settled out of court.

“There’s always disgruntled employees,” Baldwin says of the lawsuits (Coulam declined an interview request). “I’m not really privy to all the information about those suits,” Baldwin goes on, “but George, he’s trusting and loving to a fault.”