There are few things in the world like Santa Clarita’s annual Cowboy Festival.
Over the last 26 years, the event has grown into a two-day-long festival organized by close to 100 members of city staff, featuring 25 musical acts and welcoming approximately 10,000 festival attendees each year.
From April 13-14, the Cowboy Festival offers five different festival stages, a wealth of history about Hart Park and a variety of food and drinks that would make a gourmand jump for joy.
The commitment to this event from the Santa Clarita community is absolute, and even the elected officials get in on the excitement, with Santa Clarita City Councilman Cameron Smyth donning an apron and cowboy hat while enthusiastically barbecuing and sharing information about this year’s event in a promotional video.
“It’s been a trial-and-error thing over the years, and it’s not that we have one year of history. We have 26 years of doing this,” said Phil Lantis, the arts and events manager for the city. “It’s about making the best event possible for the attendees and constantly improving year after year.”
Not everyone can say they’ve been to every single Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival. And there are even fewer that can say they’ve helped organize all 26 Cowboy Festivals. Lantis is one of those few.
“I started working for the city the year before the first festival,” said Lantis. “And I’ve worked in every capacity in some way to help organize this festival.”
When the festival first launched in 1994, it was held at Melody Ranch in Newhall and went by a different name.
“It used to be called the Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival we used to be just traditional cowboy music and poetry,” said Lantis. “But now we’ve added more modern country, bluegrass, folk and Americana music.”
The festival also shifted over to being housed at Hart Park as opposed to Melody Ranch, giving the festival organizers more room to add stages, transportation and number of performers. However, despite festival planners always trying to introduce new features and improve upon old ones, one thing has always stayed the same.
“There has always been three types of people (who attend the festival),” Lantis said. “There’s the people who love it and have all the gear. They’re kind of like the Renaissance Fair people, with their own hat, spurs, boots. Then there’s the more casual ‘weekend cowboys,’ who wear a hat or Wranglers or like a western shirt. And then there’s the people who just come in regular clothes.”
Lantis said there’s never been an obligation to dress up, it just makes it a little bit more fun for people — as long as they’re staying hydrated.
“I’m sometimes called ‘The Firefighter’ (because) I’m kind of a floater where if something happens (regardless of the issue) I’m called in,” said Lantis, adding though one of the most prevalent problem he’s called to every year is in regard to high temperatures and dehydration. “When people get dressed up, especially in the corsets… it’s important for us to make sure we keep everyone hydrated.”
Entertainment and Attractions
Dave Knutson has been organizing the Cowboy Festival alongside Lantis for 15 years now, and he says this year’s festival is once again bringing back the successful attractions and performers of years past, but also plans to introduce Santa Clarita to new features, as well.
The county staffers who oversee Hart Park, and work with city staff to put on the festival, are very supportive, Knutson said. “They don’t laugh at us when we come up with new crazy ideas.
“People can’t go in the barnyard, which has always been big attraction (because the animals are under quarantine), so let’s do stuff at the duck pond,” said Knutson. “We’re also working with Bridge to Home this year to introduce a chili cook-off competition on Sunday.”
Event staff say this year’s 25-artist lineup adds more modern country music than there’s been in previous years, and each of the five stages on the festival grounds are broken up by genre.
“Some of the past and the music that brought us to where we are now, but some new bands you might have not heard of before,” Knutson said. “Main stage is more mainstream music with hour-long sets, while the other stages have” more niche genres.
A mechanical bull, family activities and roaming rope trick artists and a fiddler will also be available during both days. Those interested in doing a little shopping can peruse the western themed wares, clothing and books provided by the festival’s various vendors.
“We’re a free festival now, (meaning) no tickets are needed to get in,” said Knutson. “So, come check out all the activities, (purchase) some barbecue, meet and greet with authors, or try our delicious peach cobbler.” Knutson said.
Over 100 people from the city needing to get in and out of the festival grounds throughout the Cowboy Festival season, and that number doesn’t even include the number of volunteers, vendors and the festival’s nonprofit partners, Friends of Hart Park, the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society and Bridge to Home.
“One of the challenges we always had when it was at Melody Ranch is that it was not designed to have parking for a large festival,” said Lantis. “And so we’ve been doing the shuttle service since the beginning.”
Lantis said they continued to provide free bus rides even after moving to Hart Park, and they still provide free shuttle bus parking in an empty field located at the corner of 13th Street and Railroad Avenue. Five buses then run throughout the day, transferring a few thousand attendees each day for free.
“It’s only about a half-mile route from the parking area,” said Lantis. “The buses pull up and park — usually there’s no waiting — and people can just get right on and be taken to the festival,” Lantis said.
The event organizer also added this year’s festival will be using the Old Town Newhall parking structure for the first time.
“You can park at the Newhall parking structure and walk over as well, but there will be no parking at Hart Park during the weekend,” Knutson said.
The main festival is being held at William S. Hart Park Event Area on Saturday, April 13 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday, April 14 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information about the Cowboy Festival, visit the event website at http://cowboyfestival.org.