DADE CITY — It was a gorgeous day. A blue sky, no clouds, crisp air and bright sun.
It was hard to find a parking spot in Dade City on Saturday. The shuttle lot at the fairgrounds was packed, as well as the side streets stretching out for blocks around downtown. They were all here for the Kumquat Festival.
Thousands and thousands, and, judging by their license plates, came from near and far. Many Tampa Bay area residents, but there were also people from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Michigan, Delaware, Indiana, Virginia, Maine, California, Minnesota, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
"Why do so many people come here?" pondered Bill Sargent, a former military man turned pest control store owner turned photographer, who travels the world and now sells his work at fairs. He tried to leave his post earlier in the day and waded into the crowds. "It was like I was a salmon fighting the current."
He and his wife, Ann, live in Lakeland and usually hit true art fairs, but they began coming to the Kumquat Festival six years ago. Bill, with his Hemingway scruff and tweed cap, and Ann with her wool sweater and scarf, talked about their European travels surrounded by vendors selling wind chimes made of Budweiser bottles, glass nail files and tiki torches with pink flamingos at this annual festival dedicated to an odd fruit.
"It's like a country fair without the rides and livestock," Bill said merrily. "It's Americana."
He and Ann wouldn't want the organizers to change a thing.
"There's something magical here," Bill said.
"Look at these crowds."
This year, the festival was advertised on Tampa's Super Bowl Web site and some thought the crowds would be bigger because of it. But the attendance, which is hard to estimate because there is no gate, appeared to be on par with years past, when 30,000 to 40,000 people turned out. This quirky festival always draws a big crowd.
Something different this year, though, was that few people carried shopping bags.
"Nobody's got any money," said Jeanne Rice, who drove more than two hours from Lake City and began setting up her homemade crafts at 2:30 a.m. Saturday. She wasn't happy.
"Sales are way down," she said. She slashed prices so she wouldn't have to load her goods back into her trailer.
"Feel this so you know what I have to do all day," she grumbled, hoisting a $24 wooden lawn ornament with a lantern and a bear dressed in a UPS uniform holding a race car, all entwined in fake ivy and adorned with an American flag and a checkered race flag.
"Heavy, isn't it?" she said.
Maggie Bubel, who had a booth with her daughter, Loren Penny, made special Steelers and Cardinals purses out of recycled jeans and fabric, but they sold only one, for $15, to a Steelers fan.
"We've had 100 people look at the purses," Penny said. "But that's all they are doing — looking. People don't have extra money."
If folks weren't buying trinkets, they were buying food. Lines snaked around food vendors and, at the kumquat pie booth of the Catholic Women's Club of St. Anthony's Church, they were running out of pies. They made more than 450.
"It's been like this all day," Betty Schambeau said of the crowd.
Juanita and David Demchak, who have been married for 49 years, sampled free kumquats in the afternoon. They drove over from Lakeland on a whim.
"It was free," Juanita said, "and it was such a beautiful day."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4609.