Jacksonville to celebrate 30 years of Tomato Fest

Published on Sunday, 1 June 2014 23:04 - Written by FAITH HARPER fharper@tylerpaper.com

The tomato has been a staple of the diet and income of Jacksonville residents since the first shipment left the county in 1897, but the town’s celebration of its favorite crop wasn’t consistent until the mid-1980s.

The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce is celebrating 30 years of Tomato Fest on June 14. The annual celebration is held the second Saturday in June as the fruit begins to ripen.

The local produce was such a big deal that at one time more than 90 percent of tomatoes eaten in Texas were grown in Cherokee County soil, Shelley Cleaver, with the Cherokee County Historical Commission, said.

“The Liberty Hotel was where all the (tomato) buyers stayed, and the stock market used to call there in the morning to see what tomatoes were selling for in Jacksonville,” Cleaver said.

On the 100th anniversary of the use of the tomato as food, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce secretary thought up the idea of making the country more tomato-minded by creating a National Tomato Week, according to the chamber of commerce.

That year, 1934, the town held its first Tomato Festival.

The celebration had all the fanfare and pageantry of the Texas Rose Festival, with a grand parade of ornate floats and a Tomato Queen, crowned in a sparkling dress, Cleaver said.

In 1941, the town was recognized as the tomato capital, and more than 25,000 people attended its festival, according to the chamber.

The tradition was interrupted in 1942 because of World War II, and didn’t spark up again for nearly four decades — in 1984.

That’s when organizers dropped the “ival” off the Tomato Festival, and created the Tomato Fest.

Bea Johnson, the chairwoman of the first revitalized event, joked that the townspeople had bragged about their tomatoes for more than 100 years and were ready to celebrate again. She said about six prominent people from the community met and organized what she called a mild success.

“We needed something to highlight the town and something that was exclusively ours,” she said.

The first Tomato Fest had about four concessions and about 12 arts and crafts booths in front of the Tomato Bowl, and a lady named “Little Miss Tomato” dressed in a costume, Ms. Johnson said.

“It was very, very hot,” she said. “It was in early June. We ran it for three days, and we decided that was a little too long because it was very hot.”

Because of the heat, the celebration was moved to the Cherokee County Stock Show and Exposition Center on Loop 456.

Ms. Johnson said the Fest eventually outgrew the show barn’s capacity and it was moved back to downtown, where it is still held.

The celebration was shortened to a fun-packed day with contests, tournaments, food, music and dancing.

“We have added all these contests, so we involve not just the locals, but anyone who wants to enter,” she said.

However, the crowning of a Tomato Queen and the pageantry associated with it was lost.

Peggy Renfro, president of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, said the queen tradition was briefly brought back in the early 80s, but it faded away.

“There would be a Tomato Fest pageant held at the high school,” she said. “The Jaycees did it for a couple of years and after that it was a sorority, but the sorority didn’t want to organize it anymore so it faded way.”

Ms. Renfro said the festival has many moving parts, and it takes more than 100 volunteers to make it a success, but no group wanted to tackle the queen contest.

The celebration began with humble beginnings, but has become an economic force for local businesses. More than 9,000 people are expected to be downtown for the 30th celebration, Ms. Renfro said.

“Last year, was a record year with more vendors and visitors attending the festival,” she said. “Local businesses also noted the increase in traffic and sales due to this annual event.”