Ruskin Tomato Festival: Roots in the 1930’s
If you’ve noticed people are excited about the revival of the Ruskin Tomato and Heritage Festival, aka the Ruskin Tomato Festival, (May 6, 2017, EG Simmons Park), it’s for good reason. People who’ve lived in the South Shore area for a while are familiar with the event, although it was last held in 2012, and they can’t wait.
They’re likely remembering the Miss Ruskin Tomato Queen contest, the free slices of Ruskin tomatoes, the entertainment and just the overall festival. It’s truly a community event.
But, did you know the Ruskin Tomato Festival started back in the 1930’s? Yes. And, this year’s organizers are hoping to bring back some of the festival’s original flavor.
The Original Ruskin Tomato Festival: 1930’s – 1950’s
Imagine back to the 1930’s, before WWII. This area was booming agriculturally, especially with tomatoes. From north Manatee County to Ruskin and beyond, you could find tomato fields after tomato fields.
The original Ruskin Tomato Festival ran between the 1930’s and the early 1950’s and was described as follows in A Brief History of Ruskin (Credit: www.ruskinhistory.org/RuskinBooklet.pdf).
“From 1934 until the early 1950s, the major social event of Ruskin’s year was the Tomato Festival. It combined features of a county fair, beauty pageant, and a political rally.”
“The Ruskin Tomato Festival was more of a commercial expo,” explains Dr. Mac Miller, one of our area’s historians and long-time residents. “Growers and anybody related to the tomato industry were there, including tractor manufacturers, kitchen-ware companies to youth organizations like the FFA (Future Farmers of America).”
The festival also had activities for the families, including rides and games, in a true community fair style.
Mac Miller describes one of his earliest memories of the festival. His father, one of the organizers at the time, had to go out one night to check on the Ferris Wheel that was being erected for the event. “It was so thrilling,” Mac says, “to see the Ferris Wheel being tested at night with lights.”
Frances Hereford, another long-time resident, suggested the original Ruskin Tomato Festival was similar to today’s Strawberry Festival. “The Ruskin Tomato Festival even had its own rodeo,” Frances says, remembering her first festival as a little girl in 1953.
Generally speaking, if you ask people who experienced some of the earlier festivals, one of the fondest memories brought up is that of the giant tomato fight.
“I remember when the festival took place next to the man-made lake, near the current Martha and Mary House,” Mac Miller says. “There was a huge tomato fight from the boats and on the land.”
Ruskin Tomato Festival Comes Back to Life in the Late 1990’s
Somewhere along the way The Ruskin Tomato Festival took a break, a break which lasted 50-60 years.
“The festival stopped after the war years,” says Sandi Council, President the Ruskin Community Development Foundation (RCDF), the festival’s organizer. “We [the RCDF] brought it back in the late 90’s.”
But, the first revived Ruskin Tomato Festival in the late 90’s wasn’t’ without drama. It almost didn’t happen.
“The first revived festival was scheduled as a three-day event,” Sandy explains. “On the first day this area received more rain fall in the shortest period of time in recorded weather history. We were knee deep in water,” Sandy says. “We had to cancel a visit from the Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture from Tallahassee and the main tent collapsed. We weren’t sure the whole festival wouldn’t have to be canceled.”
Miraculously, the water drained away and, by Day 2, the Ruskin Tomato Festival was alive and well again.
For the late 90’s festival revival, the RCDF changed the name to the Ruskin Tomato and Heritage Festival. They wanted the festival to include memories of the original festival and continue to celebrate Ruskin’s history as a community.
It was a special year, too. It was the first, and only, time the festival included both a Queen and a King of The Ruskin Tomato Festival. Dr. Mac Miller and Aleta (Jonnie) Mascek were chosen, both were also the oldest to be named King and Queen.
The Ruskin Tomato and Heritage Festival ran between the late 1990’s and 2012, when it went on break again.
The New Ruskin Tomato and Heritage Festival
But, now it’s back. Thanks to the Ruskin Community Development Foundation.
Also, thanks to the many local volunteers already committing their time and efforts to organize this year’s festival.
Unfortunately, the famous tomato fight of the olden days will not be a part of this year’s event (times have changed, as have legal liabilities), but this year’s organizers are committed to bringing the family style festival back to life.
While the RCDF and Ruskin Tomato and Heritage Festival committee is still seeking approval for several activities from the Hillsborough County Park Services they hope to have tug-o-war games, singing hayrides, sack hops, tomato eating contests, tomato piñatas and tomato toss games.
They also plan to host the Miss Ruskin Tomato Queen contest, for several age groups and, of course, there will be free tomato slices. Visitors will also enjoy all-day entertainment, an Arts and Crafts Fair, lots of great food and drink, and a Kids’ Zone.
A Whole Community Festival
The entire Ruskin (and South Shore and beyond) community are invited. One of the fundamental goals of the festival is to bring the community together to celebrate our community and remember our history.
Joe Zuniga, heading the Entertainment and Sponsorship opportunities, is also working to entice the Hispanic community to participate.
“The festival is about celebrating our community,” Sandy says, “and celebrating all of us.”
Come on Out!
We’re lucky to have such a deep history in our area, and even luckier to have people and groups like the Ruskin Community Development Foundation committed to keeping that history alive, and preserving the community spirit in our area.
Follow the festival’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RuskinTomatoFestival/
Volunteer, Sponsorship, Vendor and Entertainment Opportunities
Kid’s Zone Volunteers: Contact Heather Barr at email@example.com
General Volunteers: Contact Juan Garcia at firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact Jen McCafferty at email@example.com
Vendor Applications and Information: http://www.jens-market.com/ruskin-tomato—heritage-festival.html
Agricultural Vendor Opportunties: Contact Delilah Garcia, head of the festival’s agricultural section.
Sponsorship and Entertainment Opportunities
Contact Joe Zuniga at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ms. Tomato Queen Pageant Information
Contact: Selena Sandoval at email@example.com