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Thank the stemmers for your Strawberry Festival shortcake

PLANT CITY

They arrived at the 1914 Plant City High School Community Center on Collins Street around 8 a.m. Tuesday with pans and paring knives.

Biscuits and wild hog sausage gravy and coffee greeted them as they walked in to continue a tradition that began 35 years ago.

They are the berry stemmers, women, men and children who work off-site preparing the ripe strawberries for shortcake. In 1978 there were 12 volunteer stemmers, said Shelby Bender, East Hillsborough Historical Society president and head of the society's shortcake booth at the Florida Strawberry Festival.

Now the group has about 250.

And it has Sue Moos, Bender's sister and a Tampa surgical nurse who is gracious enough to prepare the breakfast. Another volunteer doing her part.

• • •

More than 2,700 volunteers of all ages and walks of life make up the backbone of the festival. They work for the love of the event, including those who run the festival's three shortcake booths. (The historical society, St. Clement Church and Turkey Creek Assembly of God offer the treat.)

That number does not include the society's berry stemmers, who work off-site preparing the berries for their fate. They pare the fruit while sharing memories about years gone by.

Some, like Viola Melton and members of the Collins family, have been coming every year. Others are newcomers.

Melton, in her late 80s, has a long history with strawberries. Her father, a berry farmer at Knights Station, had her packing berries at age 8. As a teenager, she stemmed berries for Breyers Ice Cream in Plant City.

"Lord, time passes," she says, adding that this is a good time to catch up on the year's doings in the town she loves.

"Most everybody got in on stemming at one time or another," she remembers, speaking of old families and friends, like the late Betty Barker Watkins, a Plant City commissioner for years. "She and her sister Jean Weaver always came."

Viola doesn't go to the festival because she can't walk a lot anymore, but she enjoys stemming and the memories it brings.

Brothers Will and Tom Collins, disabled veterans of the Persian Gulf War and Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, are carrying on a family tradition. Their parents, who died last year, stemmed at the old school every year in their latter years.

Terry and Jill Boersma are newcomers to both stemming and Plant City. The couple met in Washington, D.C., where they worked for the FBI.

Dianne and Carl Black have brought their daughter, Carrie, and her three young boys to try stemming. Austin, Jeb and Jacob are homeschooled, and the family thinks it will be an interesting experience for them.

Then there's Victor Staton of Indiana, who lives in Plant City five months of the year. "My neighbor invited me to come stem," he says. He, like most stemmers, finds the festival too crowded to enjoy.

Walden Lake residents Gizella and Bo Widerberg, who moved to town to be near their son, have stemmed for two years. They came to Plant City 27 years ago from Canada, after living in Australia, Norway, Sweden and Hungary, where Bo made a living as a photographer and writer.

"I was his model," says Gizella, and she whips out a small album showing striking photos, one of her in a leopard-print two-piece bathing suit. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in January.

"And we still talk to each other," she says.

"Stemming rhythm comes quickly, even after a year," says Tom Riley, who is in his early 80s. He came to Plant City seven years ago after retiring as a fabrication manager in Connecticut. He says he's too old to walk around the festival. He and companion, Lillian Piepul, both widowed, were once high school sweethearts.

"We come every day to stem," he says, "between doctor appointments."

• • •

First-timers Melanie Williamson, born and raised in Plant City, and Meg Scott are looking to enjoy a morning out. Williamson, a stay-at-home mom who homeschools her 11th-grade son, likes to give him some time alone to work, "to help him develop some independence."

Scott, an English teacher and journalist, is meeting two friends who also volunteer as stemmers.

There are no bad stories at the stemming, only new ones. There is NASCAR talk, shared recipes, travel stories, what happened on yesterday's talk shows (Ellen DeGeneres seems a favorite), health issues and lamenting the demise of things like the caboose and shorthand.

Politics doesn't come up.

When each day's stemming is done, usually around noon, the volunteers leave with their pans and knives, but no one leaves without more memories than he or she arrived with.

By festival's end, the East Hillsborough Historical Society stemmers at the 100-year-old building will have prepared about 1,200 flats of Plant City strawberries that will have fed almost 40,000 festivalgoers.

The money the society makes from this effort will go toward the historic community center's ongoing restoration.

But the morning reveals that sometimes all you need to preserve memories is good company, a pan and a paring knife.

Betty Briggs can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Thank the stemmers for your Strawberry Festival shortcake 02/27/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 6:55pm]
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