Sixty-one years ago, newspaper editor Howard Rosser had a vision for how Winnsboro could capitalize on the beauty that fall brings to East Texas each year.
The festival his vision birthed — Winnsboro Autumn Trails — will mark its 61st anniversary when it returns each weekend in October.
Sponsored by the Autumn Trails Association, Winnsboro Autumn Trails has something for everyone: trail rides, barrel races, an Autumn trails pageant, classic car parade, a chili cook-off and an outhouse race just to name a few.
Tex Willis, president of the Autumn Trails Association, said the event began with a trail ride in 1958 and evolved to the larger event it is today. Willis said he has been involved in the event since he was born in 1965 and his father, Robert Willis was already involved.
“When dad started about 1963, he had a 1929 Model A pickup and a Model 1929 sedan like the ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ and it was rusted out and he had never painted it. It had bed springs and a wash tub on top,” he said. “Painted on the side of it was ‘Autumn Trails or Bust.’ It looked like something from the old Dust Bowl. He was always at the end of the parade. When he got to where he couldn’t do it anymore, I took the back spot to keep that going.”
Willis’ father wasn’t the only family member involved in the festival. His uncle, John M. Willis, known to most as “Uncle Bob,” was a Model A Ford man as well. Both the Willis brothers were known to bring many car enthusiasts from Dallas and Fort Worth to celebrate in the festival. Today, people also come from Houston, San Antonio, Little Rock and Oklahoma.
“At one time we were the biggest antique car parade in Texas,” he said. “We still may be but I don’t know how to research that.”
When his father first started drumming up enthusiasm for the cars, he would drive a Model A Ford around downtown Winnsboro and honk to get everyone’s attention, Willis said.
The trail ride is the third weekend of Autumn Trails, on Oct. 19 this year, and there is camping in the city park, said Mack Jordan, vice president of Autumn Trails. The trail ride and antique cars remain the most popular draws of the month, he said.
When the event began in 1958, about 10,000 people would come from the Metroplex on a weeklong ride to Winnsboro and would camp out there. These days about 2,000 people participate, Jordan said.
“I don’t think it is as much a lack of interest as much as not as many people doing the tradition anymore,” he said. “You don’t see as many people with wagon teams and horses like they used to be. As times have changed, people are not doing that as much.”
Despite the decline in numbers, the event remains so popular for people who do participate that they plan for it a year in advance.
“We have been told they put in their vacation (request) a year in advance just to come in and do Autumn Trails,” Jordan said. “We have people leave Autumn Trails and reserve their place in the park for the next year’s Autumn Trails.”
Jordan said people who participate in the trail rides enjoy camping out and cooking and eating together outside to enjoy nature.
“It’s a lifestyle people want to experiment and want to enjoy,” he said.
Other events people might want to mark their calendars for include the taste of Winnsboro contest, pie baking contest, barrel running, the Carolyn Carney Memorial Pet Show on Oct. 12 and the Mule Rodeo on Oct. 18.
The Autumn Trails festival has been a steady success since it began in 1958, with all kinds of volunteers and participants keeping it going, but it was Rosser’s brainchild. He was the former editor of the Winnsboro News and a former director of what was known as the East Texas Chamber of Commerce. He published the first East Texas Tourism Guide.
Howard was married to Kathy, and they had two daughters, Belinda and Leslie.
Belinda Rosser-Gunkel said Rosser passed away in 2007 but his contribution to the festival and tourism in East Texas is a legacy that remains.
“He was an entrepreneur,” she said. “He loved East Texas and East Texas loved him.”
Rosser and Kathy had just returned from a trip to the Ozarks in 1957 when it occurred to him the Winnsboro area was just as beautiful in the fall. He decided to take $15, round up four members to become Winnsboro’s Autumn Trails Association and the Winnsboro Autumn Trail become a reality.
“When he saw how the Ozarks capitalized on autumn leaves he said, ‘They ain’t got nothing on us,’” Rosser-Gunkel said.
In 2018, on the 60th anniversary of the Autumn Trails, the Winnsboro News published a 33rd Annual Autumn Trails edition. The paper included an editorial written by Rosser from the Nov. 14, 1957, edition of the paper. The editorial established why he believed the tours would be good for the town.
“Between the greenness of summer and the nothingness of early winter, the first sprinkling of frost touches the sweet gums, the maples, great red oaks and the sassafras of the Trinity County, and the countryside becomes a Scott plaid. This seasonal phenomenon compares favorably with the soft April beauty of the dogwood trails, or the beauty of the bluebonnets in the spring along the South Texas coastal plain.”
“As this picturesqueness of a thousand colors splashes on the hills and fields of the Winnsboro area, we again raise the question of having an autumn trails or foliage tour of this wonderful area.”
Rosser-Gunkel said her father was honored posthumously for his work in East Texas and said Autumn Trails is just one aspect of all her father did to put East Texas on the map.
“He was just a pioneer,” Rosser-Gunkel said.