By RENEE FITE
A sweet festival is in bloom, and the second weekend in May, it will be ripe for the picking.
The 66th annual Stilwell Strawberry Festival, set for May 11, features the crowning of the Strawberry Festival Queen, a parade, arts and crafts, carnival, car and tractor show, poker run, and 5K run, with more than 700 participants.
The fun is big – like country music entertainer James Wesley – as well as down-home, as locals join returning classmates and friends for school reunions.
The Stilwell berries may be small, but long-time growers can tell a Cardinal variety of berry from Flavorfest or Blakemore by taste.
“The growers said the strawberries are in full bloom; if the weather cooperates, we’ll have ripe strawberries [for the festival],” said Marty Green, OSU Extension Educator and a member of Kiwanis, the club that organizes the event.
Most growers have been bringing berries to the festival for years.
“But we have one new grower this year, Tyler Woods, a younger grower,” said Green.
Jessica Simmons will be crowned Strawberry Queen following the parade.
“The festivities have already begun with the queen contest and prince and princess contests,” said Nancy Garrett, owner of AAA Abstract and Chamber of Commerce member. “Jessica did a delightful dance routine.”
Garrett hasn’t missed a festival in years.
“I’m looking forward to the festival as always, particularly the parade,” she said. “I never miss that. I like the floats and that people put so much effort and creativity into them. And I like when we have marching bands.”
She also enjoys perusing the arts and crafts booths.
“And I enjoy having company. People come from out of town to get berries and friends like to come get them, too,” said Garrett. “My daughter, Susan [Crowley] and her husband usually cook out.”
Locals have their favorite ways of eating the berries, too.
“The best way to eat strawberries is the way Emmabelle Garrett, my kids’ grandmother, made them – with strawberries and crust,” said Garrett. “Pie crust is rolled out in a sheet and baked. You break off pieces, and eat with vanilla ice cream and berries.”
Betty Barker has been to every one of the 66 Stilwell Strawberry Festivals. Now her great-grandchildren go.
A member of both the Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis, the retired teacher still mans the information booth on main street, in front of the county courthouse, beside the prize-winning strawberries.
“We’ve held the queen pageant and prince and princess pageant, and now the berries are in full bloom and we’re hoping to not have a late freeze,” Barker said.
She helps with the queen pageant, gets the plaques and crowns for the girls, and makes sure they have cars to ride in for the parade.
One new event that’s becoming popular is a recipe contest, with adult and youth categories.
“The desserts are auctioned off like the flats of strawberries, sometimes whole and sometimes by the slice,” said Barker. “I really enjoy all the activities and seeing people come back year after year. There are several class reunions. The Class of ‘45, my class, always gets together.”
The Wednesday before the festival is Strawberry Day at the state capitol. Volunteers take and serve berries, short cake and whipped cream for receptions in both the Senate and House of Representatives.
“Larry Adair and Herb Rozell started this tradition,” Barker said. “And we always take the [queen and her court] and some of their parents.”
Dan Collins, Kiwanis president and ICTC Stilwell director, said Barker is the backbone of the festival, and the volunteers are invaluable to the event’s success.
“That’s what makes this event possible – not just the Kiwanis, but the fire department, police department, city government. It takes a lot for a small community to put on a festival of this magnitude,” he said. “We’re bringing in bigger-name entertainment than we’ve had in the past, by booking James Wesley. And we think the outlook for berries now is very, very good. I hope people will come out and enjoy the event, and support the vendors,” Collins said.