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Fun is where the heart is

In Tampa Bay, 'tis is the season of the fest. We have Tampa's Gasparilla festivities, followed closely by (in no particular order of importance), Clearwater's Fun 'n Sun Festival, Pasco County's Chasco Fiesta, St. Petersburg's Festival of States and Plant City's Strawberry Festival. Not to mention the attendant fairs and fests that have sprung up in the short but financially fertile span of time that measures the crest of the tourist season.

Given that some of our bay area fests are based on outright fabrications (the mythos of pirate Jose Gaspar) or unabashed attempts to coax more dollars from tourists' pockets (the Festival of States), it would be easy to turn a cynical eye on civic celebrations that have arisen in other parts of our fair state.

But like the San Antonio Rattlesnake Roundup and the Spring Hill Chicken-Plucking Contest, it turns out that Florida harbors quite a number of unique fests in small towns, where they don't give a fig for tourist dollars because they never get any tourists anyway.

Take Palatka's Azalea Festival _ the 44th annual coming up next month. Palatka, now a town of 11,000 souls on the St. Johns River in northeast Florida, was the beneficiary during the Depression of a government project in which WPA workers planted half a million azalea bushes in a group of ravines not far from town. That 76 acres is now Ravine State Gardens, and the azaleas are still blooming.

So the second weekend of every March, the town has its fest. "Of course you don't ever know exactly when they'll bloom," said Palatkan Tim Smith. "And you seem to never hit the peak. Like this year they're blooming early. Not because it's warm in February, but because it was cold in December."

Smith is mayor of Palatka. As was his father before him. "We are not a tourist town. At all. Ninety percent of the people who'll come live within 40 or 50 miles, a day's drive for them."

For their trouble, they can see the gardens, of course, the powerboat races, the crowning of the Azalea Queen, a parade and a crafts show on the courthouse lawn.

Another fest that plays to locals is the Scratch Ankle street fair in Milton. Now Milton, inland from the Gulf of Mexico not far from Pensacola, is a festive town. They have their Fourth of July Riverfest, with its boat parade and a show from the University of Florida ski team, on the Black Water River. They have Depot Day right before Thanksgiving where the Santa Rosa County Historical Society turns the old train depot into an arts and crafts marketplace.

But Scratch Ankle, always in late March or early April, holds special significance. It is the nickname, after all, of the town.

"The talk goes," said Donna Adams of city government, "that the Spanish conquistadors had to fight the briars and mosquitoes every time they landed here, so they called this place Scratch Ankle."

The fair's logo, which has been cleared for use by a local restaurant, is a circle showing a human ankle with a hand scratching it. The city's letterhead claims boldly, "Home of Scratch Ankle." The fair, going strong since 1971, takes over the town's blocked-off Main Street for an evening. Vendors, who must be non-profit civic groups and churches, sell food and crafts and run games.

"It's a way for the local community groups to make some money," said Adams. Art Potter of the Chamber of Commerce explained, "It's just a gathering day. We are a rural county, so whenever you have something like this, people just come into town for the day."

Even a town too teensy for a chamber of commerce can have a festival. St. Marks does. This hamlet of 300 between the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers in north Florida has its Appalachee Festival every fall to celebrate the history associated with a fort built there more than 300 years ago. City Manager Ouida Vick reports that during the festival "the fort is open, we have a boat parade and usually people can tour a Coast Guard cutter."

I guess fun is where you find it.