McLOUD — People crowded the sides of Broadway Avenue in downtown McLoud on Saturday as the town celebrated its annual Blackberry Festival and Parade.
Sirens from emergency vehicles blared, cowboys on horseback trotted down the street and waving pageant queens threw candy, all to rhythms from the high school band.
Debbie George, a McLoud Chamber of Commerce member, is the festival coordinator. She is from California, and has lived in McLoud for five years. She chose to volunteer to coordinate the event as a way to get closer to her new community.
For George, the small-town feel found in McLoud is something she used to think could only reside in fiction.
“You watch all those movies and you think, ‘Oh, I would love to live in a small town,'” George said. “Well, here you go, this is it — where you know your neighbors and get to know their kids and watch everybody grow up. It's great.”
Though the celebration often is seen as an extended Fourth of July, the blackberry is still a major part of the festivities. 400 pounds of blackberries were purchased by the city for the festival. The self-proclaimed blackberry capital of the world, McLoud once counted on the fruit as a key part of its economy. Now, blackberries are brought in from out of town.
While McLoud may no longer be offering homegrown fruit, George says another thing is now on display at the festival — civic pride.
“I think it's really important for McLoud,” she said, “it gives them an opportunity to showcase our local people and our local bands and our girls that run in the pageant. It lets everyone know this is a great place to live.”
Howard Rooker spent all Saturday at the Blackberry Festival. It's an event he's very familiar with since he's been attending the midsummer festival for about 80 years.
“It started out up there on Main Street as a street dance,” he said. “Then in the '40s they went to raising blackberries.”
Rooker has lived in McLoud all his life and remembers the days when blackberries were the town's cash crop. He started picking blackberries in 1944 when he was 12 on his father's farm. Rooker even remembers sending a shipment of blackberries to Harry Truman, the 33rd U.S. president.
Rooker isn't sure why the town stopped growing blackberries, but his wife, Peggy, thinks it might have something to do with a lack of willing workers.
“Nobody wants to pick them anymore,” she said. “They'd be covered in chiggers.”
The town's crop of choice isn't the only thing that's changed since Howard Rooker's youth. The festival's parade has evolved as well.
“I used to like the horses; they'd have at least 150 horses,” he said. “They've modernized now. They don't even have many tractors.”
Another large part of the festival is its annual Blackberry Pageant. Girls ranging from age 4 to 18 compete in different age categories to win the titles of Blackberry Junior Princess, Princess, and Queen.
Various criteria are used to determine the winners, including an interview process, an essay contest and answering a live, onstage question. The girls must also be involved in fundraising events.
Jurrii Barrett, this year's pageant coordinator, won the title of Blackberry Queen in 2007 when she was 14.
“It was a big deal to me and my family, especially since I had lost in 2006. My great-grandmother was also royalty, so it was a big deal to me because I felt like I had tradition in my family.”
Raising money is very important for success in the pageant, but Barrett says getting donations isn't the only thing a potential candidate should worry about.
“It's not all about money. A lot of people think it is, but it's not. They have to pretty much max out all their skills.”
The king of cobbler
Teenagers, men and women alike gathered around a table. They wore trash bag ponchos and their faces were dripping with red berry juice.
Cobbler Gobbler competitors are not allowed to use their hands as they compete to see who could eat the most blackberry cobbler in the allotted time. Contestants ranged in age from 15 to their mid-40s. At the final buzzer it was one of the youngest contestants who reigned supreme.
“I just shoved my face in and went after it, man,” said Dillian Conaway, who won after eating five pieces in five minutes.
Conaway, 16, is a student at McLoud High School. It was his first Cobbler Gobbler and his first time at the Blackberry Festival.
His friend from school, Kyle Trail, 15, asked him to come to event. Trail knew his friend had a chance at the title.
“I've seen him eat before,” Trail said.
While proud of his victory, Conaway said he'll probably enjoy his win more after he recovers.
“Right now I kind of feel like throwing up,” he said.