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Florida Strawberry Festival's hometown values create fun

PLANT CITY

I didn't get it at first.

The rides, fried Snickers bars, Frisbee dogs. The kids in strollers. People stopping and staring, holding up the line.

You pretty much can guess what's coming once you pass through the turnstile.

One fair, or festival, is pretty much the same as the next.

That's what I thought.

But that wasn't what Paul Davis, general manager of the Florida Strawberry Festival, was talking about when we sat down in his office a couple months ago.

This is the Florida Strawberry Festival, bigger than the Florida State Fair in Tampa and second in size only to the South Florida Fair in West Palm Beach.

Piles and piles of weird fried stuff come with the territory.

So do dizzying rides, grandmothers looking to rest their tired feet and dads wondering whether to get something sweet now or after lunch.

The Strawberry Festival has all of that. More than most fairs, in fact.

But even that wasn't what Davis had tried to convey to me.

So on Thursday as I walked through the festival doors for the first time, along the midway and past the food vendors, inhaling deeply the aroma of fried candy bars and Oreos, I looked for signs to remind me of what Davis talked about.

"Until you see a little kid sleeping against a pig, you don't really get it," he had said.

What Davis meant is that the Strawberry Festival isn't like most fairs because it wraps its identity in the city's history as an agricultural community. The rides and acres of weird, fried concoctions aside, it's still, after more than 80 years, an agricultural fair.

A slice of Americana, he said.

An almost forgotten slice.

I walked over to the Madonia Agricultural Center, following the crowd to the livestock area where dozens of pigs and cows were penned up, exhibited by 4-H and FFA kids.

I strolled the aisles, then noticed one pen in particular.

Peering down, I saw that slice Davis was talking about. Taylor Grimes, a teenage girl and a member of the Tomlin Middle School FFA in Plant City.

She was crashed out, splayed across her 224-pound pig, Cupcake, who seemed equally bushed.

Most festivals don't have crashed-out Taylors and Cupcakes.

A Strawberry Festival moment. A Plant City girl and her Plant City pig, both blissfully asleep.

There were more such moments to occur. They rolled out after I left the ag center. Plant City on display.

Next up, the North Exhibits Hall.

As I headed inside, thinking about Taylor and Cupcake, I saw 2013 festival Queen Kelsey Fry, red blouse and white pants, a glittery rhinestone crown on her head.

She was trying on sunglasses, hunting for something with enough bling to match her crown. She found a pair, all glittery on the sides.

"You can engrave your name on the inside," she said.

She was gracious and obliging, as were the ladies of the court that accompanied her, looking equally elegant.

Nearby, festivalgoer Linda Messina stood with her daughter-in-law, Tammy Athey of Plant City, and three of Athey's children, the littlest on her hip.

Athey asked whether the queen and her court wouldn't mind a photo with Karson, 9, and Kaden, 3.

No problem.

The girls smiled. The younger boy stood in front, waist-high to his brother. Athey clicked away.

You couldn't help but smile. Sweeter than a fried Oreo.

I finished the day watching the Lumberjills, a group of chainsaw-wielding, log-rolling ladies who put on 30-minute shows at the northeast corner of the festival grounds.

I got there 15 minutes early, climbed up the grandstand, sat and ate a $5 pulled-pork sandwich.

Roy Petticrew, 73, and his wife, Mona Petticrew, 72, sat to my left.

They were from a little town north of Toronto called Keswick, where they run a small chicken farm.

So who's minding the chickens? I asked.

"Oh," said Roy, "they're all cleaned and taken care of. They're in my freezer."

We laughed. That's one way to clear your calendar, I said.

We chatted some more, mostly about how we hadn't seen anything quite like the Strawberry Festival, then settled in for the show.

It was their first time at the festival. Mine as well. Afterward, Roy made a comment about the Lumberjills and how it's tough enough just getting a chain saw started.

More small talk, a handshake, then we headed out.

Nice people, I thought. Easy going. No ice to break.

Then I remembered one other thing Davis had said.

"If you come here alone, without a friend, you'll make one before you leave."

He might just be onto something.

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2454.

Florida Strawberry Festival's hometown values create fun 03/02/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 1, 2013 1:52pm]

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