Keepers of the Faith and Flag, Out Standing in their Field

Rural East Texans answer a hedonistic party in their midst with a sober celebration of God, country and conservatism.

The Ben Wheeler God & Country Pasture Party, on a sober Saturday night in Van Zandt County.
Patrick Michels
The Ben Wheeler God & Country Pasture Party, on a sober Saturday night in Van Zandt County.

They came from Dallas and Van, College Station and Canton, even from surrounding states, as many as 5,000 of them, some as young as 13, to party in a Van Zandt County pasture on a Saturday night. Word spread fast on Facebook and Twitter. “Heading to Gods country with 2 bins full of Jell-O shots for #PB3,” one reveler wrote on Instagram with shot of himself behind the wheel. They handed over $5 at the gate, drank Crown and fruity Bacardi, smoked pot and spice and had sex in the open field. Used condoms and party cups littered the field.

Entertainment: the Dallas rap duo Yung Nation, White Boy Boogie and DJ CP. Bathroom facilities: primitive. Event security: a goateed kid in a neon vest, with a bow and arrow and a sword. Once the authorities arrived, it took hours to clear the crowd, care for the wounded (fistfights, flying beer bottles) and respond to reported gunfire. While Yung Nation never made it onstage, “Project Beall 3” exceeded its organizer’s wildest expectations. Taylor Beall, the party’s eponymous planner and a 2013 graduate from nearby Brownsboro High School, delivered his elegy on Twitter at 4 a.m.: “Crazy and fun night but NEVER again!”

The Project Beall 3 crowd
The Project Beall 3 crowd lit up in the night on June 14.

In the weeks that followed the party on June 14, locals in the rural East Texas county just west of Tyler set to holding him to that promise. Word spread of the backroads bacchanal from KMOO radio and local TV to the San Antonio Express-News, with news that the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the state comptroller were investigating. Officials from nearby towns like Ben Wheeler and Edom intensified their social media monitoring to prevent a “Project Beall 4.”

Locals said that Project Beall 3 had, for various reasons, crossed the line. Social media helped attract a huge crowd, with out-of-towners drawn to the rap artists on the bill. The audience in June had been largely black, while Van Zandt County is nearly all white, but the outraged locals didn’t mention race outright. Folks said they knew it sounded like, complaining about a bunch of loud kids, their hip-hop, and their rebellious ways—but they were certain that what happened in June was seriously troubling.

Beall was a small-town East Texas kid. He earned mention in the Brownsboro paper for playing basketball and football for his high school. But the party he threw came to symbolize, for many, the creeping influence of an unruly outside world. Whether the teenagers at the party recognized it, they had been wooed to the wrong side of a battle for Van Zandt County’s soul, smoking and drinking away its idyllic past. The kids, older locals agreed, just don’t party like they used to.

While lots of folks talked, one man took action. Van Zandt County veterinarian Dwayne Collins, unwilling to cede this dusty ground to youth’s basest instincts, responded in kind with the “Ben Wheeler God & Country Pasture Party.” Collins, chairman of the Edom TEA Party, assembled a program of cowboy church bands, preachers and speakers for the counter-party. A boy named Texas would sing the national anthem. Collins alerted sheriff’s deputies and volunteer firefighters for security, arranged for a cookout and rented a stage, a sound system and dozens of port-a-johns. This, he told the Van Zandt News, would look nothing like that “drunken drug fest” in June.

Edom veterinarian Dwayne Collins
Patrick Michels
Edom veterinarian Dwayne Collins addresses the crowd.

So on a pleasant Saturday evening in early September, under a tower of clouds and a stunning sunset, a new crowd descended on Van Zandt County to, in effect, take back the pasture.

Roadside “NO ALCOHOL” signs marked the bumpy way to the moral high ground. Friendly folks collected $20 per vehicle—each ticket good for entry in the drawing for a copy of the American Patriot’s Bible—and volunteers helped direct the parking. Beyond a treeline, a small crowd settled into folding lawn chairs they’d been advised to bring, and carried on conversations at a respectful volume. The night’s program began with a scene equal parts Norman Rockwell and Thomas Kinkade: a trio of Boy Scouts slowly raising the Stars and Stripes while, across the shimmering pond behind them, three crosses keep watch atop a replica Calvary Hill.

Collins appeared onstage in a straw cowboy hat and a denim shirt with a Texas flag for a left sleeve. He considered the events of three months ago, on a field like this one just three miles down the road. That, he said, was “a pasture party of a different kind. It was just a manifestation of the problems we’re facing in our society today.” This party, Collins said, wasn’t just a response to one “drunken drug fest” in a field last summer, but to the new way of life it celebrated. “If we lose America, it’s because we’ve lost God. And I firmly believe that.”

A youth minister introduced a contingent of high schoolers at the mic—just the sort of kids who might be peer-pressured into a Project Beall nightmare. “Ain’t it good to be in a family-friendly environment?” he hollered. By now the skies had darkened and the wind had cooled. Pointing out the storm building behind him, he asked the gathered hundreds to join him for a prayer. “We’re just gonna rebuke this rain!” he said. He asked Jesus to bend the wall of clouds around the pasture so the night could continue.

Three crosses on the opposite bank of a pond
Patrick Michels
Three crosses stand at the Ben Wheeler God & Country Pasture Party

I caught up with Collins as he shook hands in the crowd. “I’d like to have that 5,000 that showed up at the last party,” he told me. By his count, tonight’s attendance was 250—maybe folks were scared off by rain in the forecast. Collins told me he put on this party because he had a need to make a difference, to make something positive of the mess in June. “I’m not so prudish to say I didn’t sit on the back of a tailgate and drink a six-pack when I was a kid,” Collins said, but what happened down the road just doesn’t compare.

I asked a few more folks about the party in June, and why it had provoked such a strong reaction. Bobby Stamper with the Edom Volunteer Fire Department told me that what bothered him most was, “for lack of a better term, the debauchery. … We had our wild days growing up, don’t get me wrong. World was a different place then, too.”

On the phone later, I caught up with Van Zandt County Constable Pat Jordan, who’d been part of the response to Project Beall 3. He said no local charges had been filed, after all. The comptroller and TABC have each closed their cases too. The kids who attended the party won’t talk and the landowners professed ignorance about the whole thing. “They said all these people were trespassing on their property,” Jordan told me. “We don’t believe that. It was right out their back door and there were thousands of them.”

Project Beall 3 was the biggest illegal party Jordan has ever had to deal with, and he doesn’t expect there’ll be another one like it. Today, he says his office has focused on prevention—scanning social media and trying to ruin illicit pasture parties before they begin. Some outdoor parties he approved of, like Collins’ pastors-in-a-pasture tribute to “God and Country.”

And Jordan mentioned another party his office checked out this summer that turned out to be fine. “I don’t want to get into trying to profile anyone,” Jordan told me, “but you know, this had some country singers come to it, so I don’t think it was as attractive for the younger kids—they’re not so attracted to the country music scene. Especially the kids that typically want to drink and do drugs and things like that.”

Jordan was especially concerned by all the contraband officers found in June—”mountains of liquor bottles” and foil pouches from synthetic marijuana. “Our society’s got to where they accept more,” Jordan said. “I mean, I’m not all that old, I’m 56 years old, but lordy mercy, man, the things that the kids do nowadays and the substances that’s available to them now than when I was a kid—it’s just totally different.”

One man who saw no reason for concern: Yung Nation’s manager, Quinn Taylor. I called him hoping to reach a member of the rap duo, either B. Reed or Fooley Faime, but Taylor said it wouldn’t be worthwhile. Some party in a pasture way outside Dallas, all those months ago? “They don’t remember it honestly,” he told me. Taylor remembered, though. He agreed that the party could have used more security—he said Yung Nation never performed that night because nobody could clear the stage for them. Still, the scene wouldn’t compare to crowds he’s seen in Dallas or Denton. “From one to 10, it was probably a three on the badness scale,” Taylor told me. However the locals reacted, he figured, says more about them than the party. “It’s a smaller hick town, so anything that happens… They don’t have anything else to talk about.”

Pastor Dan Cummins of Bullard
Patrick Michels
Pastor Dan Cummins speaks at the Ben Wheeler God & Country Pasture Party


A light rain began to fall. A few couples in lawn chairs popped open umbrellas. Folks began clustering under camp shelters or tents. By then, the night’s speakers had only hinted at what greater dangers the “drunken drug fest” down the road signified. The band sang only generally about why Thomas Jefferson would be frightened by the state of the nation. It had been a tame affair until now, but the crowd was still on board as the message took a darker turn. It was time to get down to specifics, and for that job Collins welcomes Pastor Dan Cummins to the stage.

Cummins, pastor at Bullard’s Bridlewood Church, has for years hosted religious events and prayer services in the U.S. Capitol for lawmakers—inspired in part by Rick Perry’s 2011 prayer rally, “The Response”—with help from Congressman Louie Gohmert and House Speaker John Boehner.

His message, generally, was two-fold: that folks in Texas see a truth that few others in the nation understand, and that good Christians like this crowd had better get out and vote. Even on a night when they may not pray away the rain, Cummins spoke with conviction and hope: Despite the odds, despite appearances, this country is not a lost cause for conservative Christians.

“In spite of what you hear from the lamestream media,” Cummins told the crowd, “in spite of what our president says, that America is no longer a Christian nation, I’m here to tell you that God ain’t through with America yet.”

Cummins’ speech intensified, and so did the weather around him. The downpour began and the lawnchair-dwelling audience retreated to the cookout shelters. From the distance, a series of exclamations carried clearly through the wind. “Our forefathers were murdered by kings and despots!” “Google Margaret Sanger!” “We have the most anti-God administration, we have the most anti-God Senate, because non-voting Christians let them in!”

“We get it in Texas,” Cummins said, “that men use the men’s room and ladies use the ladies’ room. And if you are confused about which one to use, then take your business out behind the barn so we don’t have to hear it, much less smell it!” As Cummins finished his riff on “gender-confused” bathrooms, a little boy under the roof put on an adult-sized firefighter’s jacket and began swinging his shoulders. “I’m wearing a dress,” the boy announced to the adults around him. “I’m going to church in this!”

Someone came up behind Cummins and held a large umbrella over his head. After so much talk early in the night about innocence and family-friendly entertainment, the shift to Cummins’ fire-and-brimstone speech was jarring. But the crowd went with him, laughing at his digs at politicians and coastal folks, hollering back at the right spots. Cummins dwelled for a while on abortion.

“In black communities, 65 percent of deaths are not caused by gang-bangers and gang activity. Sixty-five percent of deaths in the black community are from abortion!” Cummins explained why, say, Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson would never complain about the fact: “You can’t shake down a poor black baby, dead or alive.”

“Thirty-two thousand babies murdered!” he yelled. “Their heads were decapitated, their limbs were ripped from their bodies!”

A scattered few were left to applaud from the grass when Cummins wrapped up; most were huddled under the roofs and tents further back. Collins made a brief announcement that the party was called for rain, and the teardown commenced quickly.

I found Collins one more time in the crowd. He was clearly disappointed, but prone as ever to positive thinking. “It was all worth it if one person turned their life around,” he told me. Collins wondered if any kids from that party in June had turned up tonight—he doubted any would admit it if they had. But Collins said that’s what was most important to him, even though he couldn’t compete with their crowds and the weather turned on him and he’d sure be taking a hit on the equipment rentals, he’d made his response. For tonight, at least, the field was his.

Staff writer Patrick Michels covers school reform and crime for the Observer.

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Published at 8:00 am CST