A berry good time

Annual Strawberry Festival returns

By Tara Pettit

Photo: The Troy Strawberry Festival [June6-7] offers strawberry-themed vendors, activities and live entertainment; photo: Corie Schweser

One of Miami Valley’s largest and most beloved festivals, the Troy Strawberry Festival, is here again for its 39th year to celebrate the community’s relationship to, well, the strawberry.

But, let’s face it. Does anyone really know why Troy celebrates the strawberry? As it turns out, regional food festivals have roots extending all the way back to food production in ancient times. What these festivals are really celebrating is regional traditions local charity and people.

The earliest food festivals were closely tied to the celebration of harvest holidays. In veneration of the earth gods, these ancient people gave thanks for the bounty autumn brought them. It wasn’t until the Great Depression, however, that commercially organized food festivals in America got their start: a period in time that coincided with a surge of concern for regional culinary practices.

Within the decade of Great Depression food instability, Americans sought to reinforce familial and community bonds by preserving rich traditions, which became the precursor to the larger celebrations around regionally produced foods of today.

The city of Troy has formally gathered in the name of the strawberry since 1977, but historically, its citizens have been recognizing the regionally-produced fruit as early as the 1870s.

Strawberries had been grown and continue to grow in this region of Ohio, says Troy-Miami County Public Library Local History Librarian Patrick Kennedy.

“It is known that following this period in the 1870s, several of the ladies’ church groups held strawberry festivals in order to raise funds for various Civil War aid projects,” Kennedy says. “Of course, Troy’s population was not nearly as big then, but it still would require a fair amount of berries to hold these events.”

Then, in the 1950s, the Fulton family of Fulton Farms began cultivating strawberry fields. Two-thousand acres of Fulton fields put the Troy region on the Ohio map as the biggest producer of strawberries, thus a reason to give homage to the region’s most prolific crop.

In the mid-1970s, the Troy Chamber of Commerce sought a way to generate interest in and promote downtown. The idea of holding a festival came to the forefront. Because of the predominance of strawberry production in the area, the idea of Troy’s official strawberry festival was conceived. The first festival was held June 11-12, 1977.

Each year, the Troy Strawberry Festival showcases creative strawberry-infused dishes, a wide variety of vendors who sell handmade items, live family-friendly entertainment and a tradition of annual contests and activities. From diaper derbies to Little Miss and Mister Pageants to pie-eating contests and cruise-ins on the bridge, the Troy Strawberry Festival keeps people active throughout the weekend.

Festival coordinator Corie Schweser says every year, the festival helps to create a substantial downtown footprint that brings folks from the surrounding Miami Valley and beyond to the city of Troy and all it has to offer.

This year’s big act is a nationally recognized group: Pump Jockeys, a band with the “great kind of music families from multiple generations can get up and dance to,” Schweser says.

“We aren’t just a band that comes in and plays music,” says Gas Pump Jockey frontman Pat McLoughlin. “We interact with our audiences. When you come to a Gas Pump Jockeys show, we let you know very early on in the performance that you’re going to a part of our show. Expect to sing with us. Expect to laugh and clap.”

This year will be Gas Pump Jockey’s second appearance at Troy’s Strawberry Festival. The band first played the festival in 2010, a show McLoughlin looks back on fondly as “one of the most memorable experiences” he has had with the band.

This year, Gas Pump Jockeys will bring with them one of Troy’s own: the newest member of the group that’s brought the band closer to claim its status as “two degrees from The Beatles,” McLoughlin says.

Keyboard player Michael Losekamp was formerly part of the musical group The Cyrkle, an American rock band from the 1960s that was managed by The Beatles’ own Brian Epstein.

“This will be a special experience for him to be back in his own neck of the woods for the Strawberry Festival,” McLoughlin says.

In addition to the live entertainment, the Troy Strawberry Festival also serves as a major fundraising event for all the city’s nonprofit organizations, remaining true to the founding ideology behind the earliest festivals that supported soldiers during the Civil War. Among some of the nonprofits funded through the Strawberry Festival are Vietnam veterans, Easter Seals, Kiwanis Club, Rotary Club, The Future Begins Today and those with developmental disabilities, Schweser says.

“It’s a not-for-profit event that supports the not-for-profit businesses,” Schweser says. “It provides our civic organizations a way to make money. Not a lot of people know that and think the Strawberry Festival makes all this money, but we don’t … most of the money goes all the way back to the community.”

This year’s festival, themed “Bowling for Berries,” has ramped up excitement for festival weekend with Troy Bowl hosting memorial bowling tournaments. Kennedy acknowledges the annual festival’s ability to draw a crowd to celebrate not only the city’s status as the center of strawberry production, but the city itself.

“It is a celebration of Troy, a showcase of what the city has to offer, as well as an opportunity for service clubs, nonprofits and faith-groups to raise funds which support their projects and which are important to the city,” Kennedy says. “It is a celebration of community, creativity and to some extent, culture.”

While the Troy Strawberry Festival has celebrated the strawberry for the past 38 years, we’re celebrating something that’s been honored since the beginning of time: life, bounty from the earth, charity and a community that holds it all together.

The Troy Strawberry Festival will be held Saturday-Sunday June 6-7, in downtown Troy. The festival goes from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. For more information, please visit gostrawberries.com or call 937.339.7714.

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Tara Pettit is a regional journalist and communications specialist with a focus on the arts, social/environmental justice issues, and community activism. She is passionate about cultivating intentional community and engaging in collaborative creative projects that make healthy community possible. Reach her at TaraPettit@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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