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Festival king, queen to rule swamp

He wore a long gray beard, coveralls and clutched a homemade snake and sickle. She wore a hat filled with royal blue peacock feathers perched high atop her head. Both had swamp moss draped around various limbs of their body, though he wore considerably more.

Until Saturday, Pete Mihay, 78, and Jere Huntington, 75, had never met, but now they were basking in the glow of sovereignty together, hamming it up as they strolled through the crowd greeting people and posing for photographs as the first Swamp King and Queen.

So what if they were the only two contestants? Huntington, who had been losing at bingo, said she was glad to receive the $25 Publix gift certificate awarded to each of them. She also relished the chance to show off one of her hats.

"Everybody loves my hats," Huntington said. "I have one for every occasion."

The Swamp King and Queen contest was one of several events Saturday at the Weeki Wachee Swamp Festival designed to raise money for the Weeki Wachee Area Club, Neighborhood Crime Watch and Hernando Environmental Land Protectors. It featured live entertainment, a folk song contest, a mullet smoke-off and more than 50 arts and craft exhibits.

Although no official count was taken, committee member Linda Pederson said about 8,000 people attended the one-day event, a much larger crowd than the expected 2,000.

Pederson said the event was a "complete success" due in part to contests like Swamp King and Queen in which contestants were asked to use their imaginations to create a costume to represent the swamp.

Mihay, a part-time Spring Hill resident, said his idea of Swamp King was "some guy coming out of the jungle tangling through the moss." His costume, which took three days to create, was made from old and discarded items he had lying around his house, including a snake made from rope, a siphon hose and a plastic cheese stick and a sickle made from vinyl siding.

In addition, he wrapped moss around his feet, shoulders and head to give the appearance of rising from the swamp.

Huntington's version of Swamp Queen was equally inventive. The long-time Weeki Wachee resident, who has been crafting hats for 20 years, stuffed borrowed peacock feathers into an old straw hat under which she draped moss for hair. In addition, she wore a festival T-shirt and a large grin. The creation took her one hour to complete.

Huntington is well-known for her unusual hats and often wears them to County Commission meetings to get attention. "Sometimes people try to buy them right off my head," she said.

Both winners said the moss used in their costumes came from trees in their yard, but Huntington said she soaked hers in bleach to "get all the critters out." "Not me, I got the bugs and all," Mihay said.

Pederson said the responsibility of Swamp King and Queen is "to reign over the swamp for the upcoming year." No one was sure what the duties include, but Mihay joked they might involve cleaning up after the event.

Although they were the only entrants in the contest, Pederson said she was pleased with the two representatives. Others in the crowd agreed, saying they were good-spirited and seemed genuinely thrilled to win.

Mihay was even speechless when asked what the title of Swamp King meant to him, but Huntington's thoughts turned to her husband.

"My old man will have a fit," she said.