PLANT CITY — Four years ago, Jennifer Faircloth and Jeff Lingerfelt had their first date at the Florida Strawberry Festival.
"It was just the day my family always went to the festival each year," said Lingerfelt, explaining why he chose to take Faircloth.
On Saturday, surrounded by their families, closest friends and hundreds of fairgoers, Faircloth, 19, and Lingerfelt, 22, became the first couple to be married at the festival.
"It's awesome" to be married at the site of their first date, said the bride.
The Lingerfelts tied the knot at the festival's pavilion, accompanied by a procession of wedding party members, sheriff's deputies and the Durant High School Junior Air Force ROTC honor guard.
The couple was selected from a number of contestants who asked to be married at this year's festival, said Sunny Smith, who coordinates special events.
The contest ran during September, Smith said. Entrants had to submit a photo with a 300- to 500-word essay explaining why they wanted to be married at the festival. The contest was limited to eastern Hillsborough County residents and it had to be a first marriage for both the bride and groom.
Angel Carter, chairperson of the entertainment tent came up with the idea last year.
"I passed it on to have the board look it over and they went for it. They thought it was the greatest thing," Smith said.
In addition to the service, the couple received a free reception, complete with strawberry wedding cake, free dresses for the bride and her bridesmaids, a free room for the wedding night at the Red Rose Inn and Suites in Plant City, as well as free festival admission for up to 50 guests. The festival's official photographer also shot a wedding album for the couple.
While the ceremony was open to all festivalgoers, only invited guests were allowed at the reception.
Jeff's mother, Lorie Lingerfelt, said the free wedding was a nice surprise.
"I didn't even know Jennifer wrote the (contest) letter," she said.
Jennifer's mother, Julie Faircloth, said she was happy about all the freebies that came with the wedding.
"It came out better than we could afford," Julie Faircloth said. "And she found herself a good man."
Smith declined to say how many couples entered the contest. The selection committee was impressed with the fact that the Lingerfelts met at the festival and are both graduates of Plant City High School.
They were also touched by the fact that they wanted to get married last year, but couldn't due to financial problems, Smith said.
Jeff Lingerfelt said he was grateful to the festival for making their day memorable.
"It is such a wonderful blessing," he said.