By Hollie Deese
It can be hard to make something seem fresh and new after seventy-six years, but Patch, the new mascot for the Middle Tennessee Strawberry Festival, has been doing just that, drumming up excitement by bopping around Portland businesses leading up to the annual event, this year held May 13.
It’s just one way the Chamber has updated the longtime celebration of the area’s sweetest crop, the strawberry. In fact, this year the berry itself is getting a big push too as food vendors are being tasked with adding an item to their menu that features strawberries.
“We have thirty-one food vendors, and twenty-six of them are offering a strawberry item,” Kristen says. It’s a way to supplement the overwhelming demand for strawberries as festival-goers buy whatever is available by the crate. And the amount of berries available for the fest is always in question, usually at the mercy of unpredictable weather.
“Until a week or two before we really have to just play it by ear,” Kristen says. “Hopefully Mother Nature cooperates – all of that’s at the mercy of the weather and what it wants to do.”
In addition to area farmers setting up booths with berries, Kristen says farmers from all over Middle Tennessee are welcome to set up at the festival. And they won’t begin selling until noon in order to give them that morning to pick as well.
“We don’t charge the farmers to come set up,” she says. “We just ask that they come and bring as many as they can. They will sell out quickly.”
Also new this year is a free shuttle transporting people from the parking lot at Portland High School to downtown, in addition to the free shuttle from First Baptist Church. That should help manage the crowds that topped 30,000 at last year’s 75th Anniversary celebration.
“That way, people don’t have to worry about where they’re going to park,” she says. “They can just park at the high school, and be shuttled to the festival area.”
The festival will also be kept all downtown this year, from the concert and parade to the Kid Zone and vendors. The only thing that will remain at Richland Park is the carnival which will be set up all week long. The move is an effort to keep festival-goers busy until the free Bucky Covington concert and fireworks that evening.
All of the changes and planning are a concerted effort between the chamber, area business, sponsors and volunteers.
“It’s almost a year-round thing,” Kristen says of planning Portland’s biggest event that lasts all week long, culminating with Saturday’s parade, pageant and performances. “It can be challenging. Luckily we have an army of volunteers. A lot of the clubs and organizations and churches in the area, we all get together and brainstorm. We have lots and lots of help to be able to pull it off.”
The Saturday before the festival, May 6, is Health and Safety Day at Richland Park with live music, multiple emergency vehicles for kids to look, search and rescue dogs to meet and a Sumner County Anti-Drug Coalition-sponsored inflatable. The Friday night before the festival there will be a free Music on Main concert under the city’s new string lights downtown.
“We have people that come from everywhere who hear about us or may just happen to have family that they’re visiting in town, but it’s just a way for a community to come together,” Kristen says.
Highlighting the history of the event was important to organizers this year says Kristen, not just for visitors but even residents of Portland who might not know all the details.
“Portland used to be huge for the strawberry crop,” she says. “Agriculture here has diminished and we have more industry now, but we really celebrate the Strawberry Festival to celebrate our heritage and our history.”
According to the festival’s updated website, strawberry crops in Portland go as far back as 1885 when enterprising farmer William “Uncle Billy” McGlothlin realized local soil conditions were ideal for raising strawberries. In 1912 the Portland Strawberry Growers Association was organized and farmers began entering berries in state competitions.
Portland’s first Strawberry Festival was held in 1940 and drew a crowd of about 5,000 people. Marjorie Culbreath (Langford) was crowned the first Strawberry Queen from among nineteen candidates. The local newspaper called it a “Celebration to Open the Berry Harvest” that lasted for three days, May 16-18. Local dignitaries and politicians were there, like Tennessee Governor Prentice Cooper, and Sumner County teacher H.H. Bryant led the daily berry crate auction.
The second Strawberry Festival in 1941 reportedly drew a crowd of about 10,000 people and Joyce Smart (Plumley) from White House was crowned queen.
During Portland’s strawberry industry peak there were multiple local processing plants like, Tennessee Fresh Frozen Foods and Southland, in addition to a plant that made strawberry crates and quarts. Portland became known as the “Middle Tennessee Strawberry Capital” and the berry became big business.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Strawberry Festival was not held in 1942, and the “official” celebrations with a parade did not resume until May of 1946, after World War II was over.