Festival celebrates the strawberry
The residents and businesses in Tioga County, N.Y. have many reasons to celebrate this month as they can now look back and see the flooding of September 2011 moving further into the distant past. But the residents also have another reason to celebrate, and that’s the strawberry.
For 32 consecutive years, organizers of the Historic Owego Marketplace, along with members from Tioga County Tourism, have worked many long hours to plan and organize the annual Strawberry Festival that takes place in business district. This year is themed “Celebrate” — a revival of sorts.
Pat Hansen, of the Hand of Man on Front Street in Owego, one of the original organizers of the event, stated in a recent interview that this year is a celebration of survival.
“It’s a chance to show the guests who arrive each year that we have recovered,” said Hansen, who will be cutting up 600 quarts of strawberries on Wednesday evening for strawberry shortcake.
Hansen further explained that she has 1,000 quarts of strawberries arriving that will be sold throughout the week and during the festival, which begins on Friday evening, June 15, and then all day on Saturday.
As Hansen awaits the arrival of her strawberries, which come from a farm in Syracuse near Onondaga Lake, she reflected on the festival’s growth over the years, and the number of guests anticipated for arrival this year.
Created 32 years ago, the annual Strawberry Festival was designed to attract guests into the downtown marketplace district in Owego. The festival grew over time, and five years ago the organizers took a risk with an expansion of festivities into the Friday evening prior to the Saturday event.
Stella Reschke, director of Tioga County Tourism, stated that last year was a good year for the festival.
“We had approximately 20,000 people throughout,” she added of the now two-day event.
When the organizers decided to expand to Friday evening, they took a gamble, and were surprised with the turnout. “First time we had it we were surprised,” Reschke said. “We had close to 5,000 guests.”
This successful expansion prompted growth of the Friday evening festivities, and more bands were soon scheduled, as well as a wine tent and a promotion of the businesses and restaurants that were already readying for Saturday’s big event.
“Once we knew we had a crowd, we expanded,” Reschke explained. “Now we have to focus on businesses, and we had to bring in food vendors as the restaurants became too busy.”
The Strawberry Festival Block Party, which is held in downtown Owego from 5 to 10:30 p.m., also brought in a fireworks display to conclude the evening.
Other features of the evening include a “Straw Dawgs Strut Their Stuff” contest to benefit animal rescue organizations such as Stray Haven, a Strawberry Shortcake One Mile Fun Run for children ages 6 to 12, a Strawberry Shake 5K run for adults, “Nate the Great” juggling, the Owego ArtWalk, a festival beauty pageant, a pastry contest, pig roast, and much more. There will also be a wine-tasting tent, and live entertainment at the Courthouse Square. To see a full schedule of events for Friday, visit www.owegostrawberryfestival.com.
Saturday’s event will kick-off with the annual parade that steps off at 10 a.m. in downtown Owego. But this year’s parade will take a bit of a twist from the normal routine. Celebrating flood survivorship, the parade will be marshaled by the Village of Owego Mayor Kevin Millar, and will focus on individuals who assisted in the flood recovery.
To enhance this celebration, the organizers will attempt to set a New World Record in the Longest Conga Line at the end of the parade. Guests are encouraged to jump on the conga line, as News Radio WEBO plays the song “Celebrate” by Kool & the Gang.
Reschke, who came up with the idea, is encouraging everyone to join in the conga line, which will travel the parade route.
“The idea is to set a record,” Reschke said, “but we will do it either way.”
Saturday’s festivities, following the parade, will include live entertainment throughout the streets, a bounce house, rock climbing wall, a duck derby hosted by the Tioga County Council on the Arts, a Kids’ Zone that includes face painting and more, Will Stafford the juggler, vendors, and of course, strawberries. To view a full schedule of Saturday’s activities, visit www.owegostrawberryfestival.com.
Due to the late frost experienced this growing season, many farmers are struggling with their early crops, many experiencing losses.
At Our Green Acres in Owego, farmer Frank Wiles has approximately 5 acres he plants and harvests, with some of these acres including strawberries. Each year, Wiles opens his farm to allow “u-pick” strawberries. The strawberries, he noted, were ready on June 2.
Operating for 50 years in the same location, Wiles talked about the u-pick concept, and how customers can come in and buy them by the quart. Because of the weather, he noted, the strawberries came in two weeks earlier this year.
“The earlier varieties didn’t do well,” Wiles noted, adding, “but the second and third varieties are doing okay.”
Wiles explained that the strawberries are planted in April and May, and then are usually ready by the following June. One planting, he continued, lasts approximately one week.
At the farm stand, shelves are filled with fresh strawberries that have already been picked. On the day of the Strawberry Festival, Wiles enjoys a steady stream of customers that will visit the farm following the festivities to get out in the field and pick their own.
The farm is located on Route 17C, and is located next to Royal Automotive in Owego.
One thing that guests at the festival will find different this year is the new deck being constructed in the space on Riverow, and the activities that will take place there on Friday evening and Saturday.
It has been 12 long years that the center of Riverow has sat vacant, creating an eyesore for those who pass by. But after several fundraising efforts, and a gathering of community support, the walls to the Gateway have been stabilized with brick and mortar, painting has been done to unify the colors, and steel beams provided by Ben Weitsman and Son have been placed. This work, according to Lisa Curatolo from Historic Owego Marketplace, and owner of the Goat Boy, will allow for the space to be utilized during this year’s festival.
Describing the Gateway space, Curatolo said the deck, which is at sidewalk level, measures 30 x 50 and is supported by the beams from Weitsman. She added that there is green space below the deck, which will have steps to the riverwalk.
On Friday evening, she said, a casino night, hosted by the Magic Paintbrush Project, will raise funds that will benefit both the Magic Paintbrush, and the Gateway Project.
Following the casino night, tables will be set up for people to sit and enjoy their food, or just relax.
Curatolo said progress in the project has been a long time coming.
Curatolo became involved in the project in November of 2010, and in January of 2011, the Historic Owego Marketplace reopened talks about the space.
With much work surrounding a proposed project that would create a community space for all to use, the project was close to being slated for construction when the flooding hit in September.
“We were four days away,” said Curatolo, who noted a Mildred Faulkner Truman grant that was anticipated. But with the flooding that occurred, the funding was reallocated by the foundation, and planning was stalled.
In January of this year, talks resumed of moving the project forward. Working with Avalon Construction, and after conducting a fund drive via Facebook, funds were raised in three days to move forward with building a deck. Curatolo also noted a generous donation by Adam Weitsman helped this vision become a reality.
“This is great,” Curatolo said as she stood near the construction on Front Street last week. “People are coming from all over to help out, and new people are getting involved.”
Curatolo, as well as other organizers for the Strawberry Festival events, anticipate this year to be the largest turnout to date.
For directions, information and a list of events, visit www.owegostrawberryfestival.com.