By ANN ALI ∙ firstname.lastname@example.org
It started as a way to showcase the state's strawberry growers and to provide a place for sales. Today the West Virginia Strawberry festival has become a homecoming event for the Upshur County region, and the kickoff to the strawberry growing season. It has maintained its role as the strawberry showcase.
The festival takes place each year in mid-May. It was just one day when it started in 1936. Today's festival lasts five days, and there is still no entrance fee for the event dubbed "An exciting family tradition."
Past President Deborah Hupp said back in the 1930s through the 1950s, West Virginia had more than 250 strawberry growers, and while that number is now down near 20, the festival honors them.
"A lot of people plan their family vacations around it, and they do year-to-year booking at local hotels and motels," Hupp said. "People love coming out to kick off the warm season between the spring and summer temperatures."
The festival is the only all-volunteer organization in the state, Hupp said, and it has 21 voting members along with five associate members. One is so devoted he lives between Braxton County and Charleston, Hupp said, and he makes the drive to help.
"We are known as a statewide festival, so we do look statewide not only for sponsorships but people who are willing to volunteer to help us out."
On top of the usual events, organizers try to add educational events and different entertainment from throughout the nation. And yes, they are already making plans for 2014.
"We've got groups right now on the agenda coming from El Salvador, and groups from five different states' high schools that are coming," she said.
The Strawberry Festival Grand Feature Parade, always scheduled for the third weekend of May, is known as one of the biggest in the state. Hupp said anywhere from 60 to 75 units participated in the past two years.
And every so often something new sneaks into the lineup. The 2013 festival featured a horse and carriage parade, which Hupp said had great turnout.
Sponsorships offset the costs to keep everything but the carnival free and open to the public.
"It's a big plus, I think, with the way the economy is now, everyone is always looking for some good, old-fashioned, down-home entertainment that is family oriented, and that's what we've tried to do," Hupp said. "For years and years our theme has always been ‘An exciting family tradition.'"
Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick said the festival is a crucial aspect of the culture and economy of both Buckhannon and Upshur County.
"It serves as a homecoming for many Buckhannon families, and pumps thousands of dollars into the local economy," Helmick said. "I would like to see Upshur County-grown strawberries become a larger part of the economy as well.
"I'm working on ways to increase West Virginia's agricultural output — providing citizens with fresher, better, less-expensive food — and keeping West Virginia dollars in this state."
Hupp said the festival is looking for volunteers from throughout the state who would like to jump on board for any of the events, and they can leave a message at the festival office at 304-472-9036.