BROOKSVILLE — Visitors and vendors alike heralded the new incarnation of the Brooksville Blueberry Festival last weekend.
Decidedly festive, cheek-by-jowl crowds thronged the downtown center. They shopped, snacked and swayed to stage musicians, delighting local organizers who took over when the Florida Blueberry Association left last year after five years of hosting the event in Brooksville.
Based on those he spoke to, interim Brooksville Police Chief Paul Sireci estimated the crowd at about 12,000 over two days. Organizers believed it was significantly more.
Under sunny skies and shady oaks, people swarmed a two-block area in and around Hernando Park. They were glib with compliments for the localized festival that, for the first time in six years, charged no admission.
"It was packed for the whole weekend," said event co-chairman John Lee. "Every food vendor sold out of everything they brought. Every single vendor said Saturday was the biggest sales day they’d had anywhere. (Saturday) night, from the stage to the last tents, it was a sea of people. You couldn’t see a blade of grass. It was way, way beyond anything we expected."
Local restaurateurs Lee and Blaine Hensley, of Florida Cracker Kitchen, stepped up last year to preserve the annual celebration of a significant Hernando County fruit crop.
"I think the whole community got behind the local concept," Lee said. "There was this groove. Everybody said if we needed anything, let them know." On Sunday morning, when they needed more diesel fuel to run generators and more blueberries to make shortcake, providers appeared, he said.
"People were so grateful they didn’t have to pay to get in," he said.
"People are more willing to buy," said vendor Ginger Burris of GB Jewelry Designs in Citrus County. She participated in earlier blueberry festivals, when gate entry cost $5 to $8.
"(Visitors) have more money to spend," said Ridge Manor artist Judeii Kerrigan, who was selling paintings, prints and greeting cards. "A young family couldn’t afford it before."
Timothy Hill, a spokesman for 20 volunteers with the High Point Lions Club who baked and sold blueberry pies, said the club applied every previous year, but was turned down.
This year it was welcomed by organizers and a sweet-toothed crowd.
"We sold out three times," Hill said at 3 p.m. Saturday, as he awaited delivery of the next batch of pies from the High Point community kitchen. The group sold 175 pies, but didn’t have any left for Sunday.
Lee tapped a friend to provide berries, volunteers scrambled to find biscuits, and the Lions served blueberry shortcake the next day.
Paula Frennette, representing first-time vendor Country Depot, a Brooksville Western-themed shop, said she decided to participate "because of John Lee. He’s just a good guy."
Lee, who bought the Coney Island Drive-Inn four years ago, said he built a positive reputation on the eatery’s support for youth sports, the FFA youth organization, Spring Hill Marine Corps League Detachment and others.
"This needed to be done," he said. "We have a concept in my family, that the community supports us all the time, and when we can support it, we give back."
Among vendors queried, only first-timer Pat Gaylord of Cakes by Pat, expressed mild disappointment.
"I assumed they’d have more fresh blueberries," she said. She expected berries to be available for customers to put on the pound cake she sold, creating more demand.
Only the Senior FFA at Hernando High School sold the freshly picked fruit from a booth at the corner of Ft. Dade Boulevard and Jefferson Street. Many visitors who entered the festival from other streets missed the corner farthest from the central grandstand. Even so, FFA students and boosters sold more than 1,300 6-ounce containers of berries from a Winter Haven grower. And festival-goers gobbled up nearly 200 pounds of berries from Dan Ebbecke’s Sweetfields Farm of Masaryktown, served in $1 walk-around cups.
"We could have used another 500 pounds of blueberries," said Lee.
Vendors, whether of food, arts or crafts, were thinking of future festivals as they packed up Sunday evening.
"Oh, yeah, there’ll be a blueberry festival next year," Lee said. "No doubt."
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]