Florida Strawberry Festival Queen Royal History

It has been common, and even traditional, for agricultural societies to celebrate the fruit of their labors with a festival. As the strawberry grew in economic importance to the East Hillsborough and, indeed, the greater Plant City area, it became only fitting that the strawberry have its own celebration.

The Plant City Board of Trade, forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, held a “Strawberry Day” as early as January 1, 1914, and residents were encouraged to promote Plant City’s crops and tourism by sending post cards to distant friends and relatives.

At a meeting of the Plant City Lions Club, July 5, 1929, Albert Schneider, first President and organizer of the Lions, suggested the members sponsor a festival that would involve Plant City and the surrounding communities. They accepted the idea and formed a committee to start planning. The City quickly got on board and City Manager John C. Dickerson was named General Manager of the nascent festival organization. Plus, the City advanced $1,000 for the committee’s operating revenue, to be repaid from the festival’s first proceeds.

The organization’s incorporating Charter was approved by the State of Florida and immediately, at a meeting at City Hall, the Strawberry Festival organization elected its officers and directors: Albert Schneider, President, W. Dee Marley, Vice President, Henry H. Huff, Secretary, Henry S. Moody, Treasurer, and James Henderson, F. E. Cummins, and Marcus Cone, Directors.

The newly incorporated Strawberry Festival organization drew up plans for the inaugural Strawberry Festival, which would include the selection and crowning of a Festival Queen. The site chosen was a vacant block owned by Ira M. Allen, who had homes in Michigan and Plant City. The site ran north from Baker Street along the Seaboard Railroad tracks and Michigan Avenue. It was centrally located and over the years had been used for baseball and other carnival-like activities.

The dates chosen were Wednesday, March 12, 1930, through Saturday, March 15, 1930. The Festival Queen, to be selected through a contest sponsored by the Future Farmers of America, would be featured in the grand parade on opening day and would be crowned at the festival grounds.

In addition to the parade and the queen contest, the festival group set plans for floats, vendors, a midway with rides, the Johnny J. Jones Carnival Shows, bands, demonstrations with plants, flowers, and a variety of food, and of course fresh strawberries.

The story broke in The Plant City Enterprise on January 3, 1930, stating the dates and plans for the festival. The Plant City Enterprise, under Fenton M. Prewitt, and The Courier, under Wayne Thomas, both published every Tuesday and Friday, and kept a running commentary on the festival’s developments. And the necklace the Future Farmers of America was to present to the new Festival Queen was on display at Edgar Hull Jewelry.

By February 18, 1930, all the festival booths had been reserved; excitement filled the air and prominent in the excitement was the suspense of the Festival Queen Contest. Plus, the Woman’s Club of Plant City and the Home Demonstration Club had agreed to present their third annual flower show in conjunction with the festival. The communities of Dover, Hopewell, Seffner, Trapnell, Lithia, Turkey Creek, Cork, and Springhead had all registered to participate.

Announcements were made in the two local newspapers that nominations for festival queen were open and that any “maid” or “matron” who resides in East Hillsborough County was eligible. They could be nominated by clipping a form out of the newspaper, completing it, and submitting it to Gray Miley, who was working with the sponsoring Future Farmers of America committee. The last day to nominate someone for queen was Monday, February 24th. Voting would continue into March, lasting about 2 weeks.

Ballot boxes for votes for the Strawberry Festival Queen were placed in stores about town to receive votes from the community. Each candidate would receive 5,000 votes as sort of a starting bonus. After that, each vote was one penny, and pennies for votes were placed in clearly marked envelopes. Any resident of East Hillsborough could vote as many times as he or she wished – just deposit the pennies with your votes. By February 24th, the last day to nominate a candidate for Queen, there were 36 names submitted.

The balloting for Festival Queen began in earnest Tuesday, February 25th. Each paper, The Plant City Enterprise, and The Courier, would print the ten leading candidates on subsequent publication dates. The highest vote getter would be elected Festival Queen; the next five highest vote getters would make up the Court. Heralds and Pages were chosen separately. It is reported that Nettie Simmons, a girl from Dover, was in the lead early, but was soon passed by Irvine Hopkins Wilder, of Midway, daughter of Calffrey La Fayette Wilder and Joanna Singletary Wilder. Irvine Wilder’s lead gave way to Charlotte Rosenberg, daughter of Sam and Fannie (Leibowitz) Rosenberg, who had a retail business in Plant City.

Charlotte Rosenberg’s vote totaled nearly fifty-thousand and she became the first Strawberry Festival Queen. Her court was comprised of the next five highest vote getters – Irvine Wilder, Nettie Simmons, Alice Sly, Kathryn Dudley, and Alice Maxey. Elected as heralds were Elizabeth Carey, Marian Herring, Elizabeth Hull, and Eugenia Sanchez, and the pages elected were Katherine Andrews, Virginia Dennison, Catherine Fletcher, and Helen Spear.

Thus, the newly elected Queen and her Court began to prepare themselves for the Festival and the Grand Parade. The Festival would begin Wednesday, March 12, with the Grand Parade stepping off at 1 p.m. The coronation of the Queen was scheduled for 2:30 p.m. There followed a band concert, entertainment, vendors and rides, and more. The remaining Festival days were: Thursday, March 13 – Strawberry Day; Friday, March 14 – Tourists Day; Saturday, March 15 – Farmers Day.

On opening day, the first Strawberry Festival Queen and her Court led the parade of elaborately decorated floats, decorated cars, horse-drawn carriages, and marchers. They started north of Risk/Herring Street, on Wheeler Street, and wound their way through the crowded streets in the Historic District. Wheeler, Baker, Franklin, Reynolds, Evers, Haines/ML King Blvd., Collins, Reynolds again, until turning onto Michigan and marching north to the festival grounds. The band struck up a march for the Queen and her Court as they promenaded to the throne.

The Queen was preceded by her four heralds, two pages bore her train and two more carried her crown and her necklace. The platform was decorated with a red, white, and blue bunting background and an over drape of blue material with a silver fringe. Potted palms and fern enhanced the throne in the center of the stage. Albert Schneider, Strawberry Festival President, introduced Mayor/Commissioner George A. Carey, who gave a brief speech before crowning the first Queen at 2:30 p.m., March 12, 1930.

The festival coincided with an annual event of the National Business and Professional Women’s Club, and the local chapter decided to combine its observance with festival activities. Thursday evening, March 13, the BPW hosted a banquet honoring festival officials and the Queen and her Court. The banquet was held at the Masonic Hall on Evers Street just north of Mahoney Street, and was catered by women of the Eastern Star. The official estimate of the attendance at the first day of the festival was 15,000, which was impressive in that the weather was inclement and not a Chamber of Commerce day. But it was a great day for the officials, the Queen, her Court, and the many volunteers who together produced the first Strawberry Festival, which, but for the WWII years, has continued to this day.