Weather Helps Attendance At Annual Tomato Festival
By JACQUE HILBURN-SIMMONS
JACKSONVILLE -- Lolita Shead, 54, of Larue, spent Saturday praising both the weather and healthy crop of visitors who turned out to attend Jacksonville's 28th Annual Tomato Fest.
She was found at the annual street festival peddling a sumptuous selection of fried pies and homemade goodies at a fundraiser for her church, Faith Temple Full Gospel Pentecostal in Frankston.
"These are the best pies this side of heaven," Ms. Shead said. "They are made with lots of love and patience. People buy them and come back for more -- we're spreading the gospel and the joy of good eating."
All the desserts were created by Pastor Alice Cumby, an apparent expert at feeding souls and stomachs.
The church's fried pie booth was one of 160 that set up at Tomato Fest, according to festival organizers, who credited mild weather and bountiful harvest of summer produce for the solid turnout.
"It's shaping up to be a great day," Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce president Peggy Renfro said. "We were a little concerned about the weather around the middle of the week, but there's only a 10 percent chance of rain today. That means there's a 90 percent chance it won't rain today."
About 8,000 people were expected to attend Saturday's event, which included tomato-themed contests: peeling, mashing and eating, organizers said.
There's also a chamber-sponsored photo contest under way until Friday to capture the best festival moment.
"The tomatoes really look good this year," Ms. Renfro said. "They seem to be larger than in years past."
Vegetable farmer Wanda Guinn, 58, spent her day selling summer favorites: juicy tomatoes, colorful squashes, plump blueberries.
She said there's no real secret to growing a great crop.
"Just good Jacksonville soil," she said.
The grower was assisted by her daughter, future daughter-in-law and her mother, all of whom stayed busy during the festival to keep up with customer demand.
Ms. Guinn said growing conditions have been as good as the sales.
"I love selling," she said. "We have a stand and that's what I love doing. It (harvest) was much better this year. We had early spring rain and really good temperatures. So far we're looking pretty good."
Vendor Kathy Woods drove in from Ennis to attend Tomato Fest and was delighted to see her hand-crafted aprons, some made of colorful vintage fabric, flying off the rack.
"Compared to some of the others (festivals), there's very good traffic," she said, helping Frances Green, of Jacksonville, select an apron.
She plans a return engagement to the festival, much to the delight of Ms. Green, who seemed pleased with the craftsmanship.
"I have some I made 40 some odd years ago," she said. "Every single stitch was done by hand."
Across the way, Vietnam War veteran James Dennis, 70, of Diboll, was manning the VFW Post 3984 booth to raise money for Wounded Warriors.
"We're trying to help all we can," he said. "I was one of the lucky ones. I came back with a few scratches."
Dennis spent 1968 to 1970 in the 1st Infantry Division, sweeping away and dismantling booby traps.
He said Saturday's turnout was helpful for the post's fundraising efforts as a steady stream of passersby were stopping to check out Texas-themed pins and handmade items.
"We're just asking for donations and giving stuff away," he said.
Festival regulars seemed to be loading up on their favorite summer food.
"I've already bought about a dozen tomatoes," said Shanta Lindsey, of Jacksonville, who attended the event with her husband, children and parents.
Since Jacksonville incorporated a bounty of oversized concrete tomatoes around town, the family has enjoyed playing "I spy" with the art objects.
She views the tomato spying game and the festival as learning opportunities for the youngsters.
"Seeing all the tomatoes gives them a little bit (of information) about their history," Ms. Lindsey said.
Proud grandma Sandra Senesac gave this year's tomato harvest a thumbs up.
"I think they look good this year and they taste pretty good, too," she said, helping rein in a grandchild. "It's a lot better this year than last. ... It's not 102."
Her husband, Sam, agreed, saying, "The rain saved us."