Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

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April 10, 2013

The Return of the Tomato Queen?

Tomato Fest organizers look to resuscitate the festival’s annual talent competition

JACKSONVILLE — Back in the heyday of the town's tomato boom – in the early part of the 20th century – Jacksonville's Tomato Festival  was an annual affair that drew national attention.

As did its queen.

And that queen was always earnest and beautiful and true – much like the promise of the Jacksonville tomatoes that forever crowned this area as one of the outstanding producing places in the nation.

The names of the first fair maidens to become queen are legend: First queen, 1934, Billye Sue Hackney (Mrs. W. R. Stearns), and second queen Violette Slaton (Mrs. Violette Lahour-cade), who also served as queen of the Texas Centennial in 1936.

Publicity about the Tomato Fest and the crowning of its queen made newspapers and magazines throughout Texas and the Southwest. By the time of the fourth Tomato Festival, beautiful, vivacious stunning, girls from 55 cities were actively vying for the title of 1937 Tomato Queen.

Times have definitely changed since then, but current Tomato Fest chairman Robin Butt said organizers are looking to bring back the Tomato Queen contest and its powerful allure this year – possibly even as an eventual lead-in to the Miss Texas Contest.

“Actually, we had talked about bringing it back for the 25th anniversary but were unable to get enough volunteers or help at that point,” Butt said. “This year, it was brought to us by several people interested in getting it back and scheduled.”

Peggy Renfro, Cham-ber President, said organizers are looking to have the revived pageant take place the first Saturday in August.

“That way we could have the winner present at the 30th annual tomato fest in June 2014,” Renfro said “It looks like a good possibility. This is something that has not happened in the last 15 years.”

Butt emphasized there is a lot of organizing and planning to be done.

“We obviously have more information available as we get closer to Aug. 3,” he said. “It probably won't be as big as it has been in the past but it should give us a good springboard to get a queen again for our 30th anniversary. I'm really excited about it.”

Organizers are in the process of trying to locate former queens who are still alive who might want to participate.

The local tomato industry began in Craft, near Jacksonville, in 1897.

According to the Jacksonville Historical Commission, a refrigeration transit official came to town on peach-related business when he advised local farmers of the area’s potential for excellent tomato growth.

Jacksonville held its first Tomato Festival in 1934, which quickly became one of the biggest and best-known celebrations in all of East Texas. Festivities would often last for as long as a week, and included parades, pageants, music and other entertainment.

Perhaps the biggest event at each year’s festival was the coronation of the glamorous Tomato Queen.

The event would attract visitors far and wide, even former Texas governors, all of whom wanted to crown the queen.

Jacksonville's annual Tomato Festival lasted until 1941 when the outbreak of World War II called a significant portion of the county’s men away to war.

In 1984, the Jackson-ville Chamber of Com-merce revived the tradition and launched the first Tomato Festival in almost 40 years. Although the events have changed, the spirit of the festival remains the same.

By trying to evolve it into a possible future adjunct to the Miss America contest, Butt said he also hopes the scope of applicants will expand beyond Cherokee County.

You know: Kind of like the old days.

Do you know someone who has been a Tomato Queen? You can contact the Jacksonville Daily Progress at btinsley@jacksonville-progress.com.

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