Those who step into Neighborhood Village during the Florida Strawberry Festival are invited to “hop on board” and travel through the history of the Strawberry Queens.
As you step through the doors of Neighborhood Village at the Strawberry Festival, you’re instantly greeted by a flowing gown encased in glass, illuminated by the soft glow of a spotlight.
The evening gown not only welcomes you to the number of exhibits housed by Neighborhood Village, but stands front and center for the annual Strawberry Queen’s exhibit. The exhibit, put together each year by sisters Marsha Passmore and Dodie White, features one-of-a-kind photos and memorabilia that shine a light on each and every Strawberry Queen in the pageant’s history, dating back to 1930.
This year’s queen is McKenna Jordan, 17, a senior at Plant City High School. Jordan won this crown at this year’s pageant, a feat she attributes to her dedication toward remaining her authentic self. The 2021 Strawberry Queen had never walked a runway prior to January’s extravaganza as it was the first pageant she’s participated in.
But despite participation in pageants being new for Jordan, this year is far from her first experience with the Strawberry Queen’s Pageant. The pageant holds a special place in Jordan’s heart. She has countless memories of sneaking into the Palace as a child with her aunt, Sandee Sytsma, to get a backstage glimpse at the pageant and its participants.
In addition to being named Plant City’s Citizen of the Year in 2021, Sytsma worked for 13 years as the Strawberry Court coordinator before serving as the associate director and later director of the Strawberry Festival.
Passmore described Jordan as a kind, independent thinker and noted how those qualities were abundantly evident on stage during the pageant.
“I think she’s going to be a strong-willed woman in a good way,” Passmore said. “That’s how women make a statement and I don’t even know what her ambition is in life but I think that she’ll go far in life because of that.”
Jordan hopes to attend the University of Central Florida following her time at Plant City High School, with plans to study nursing after her own personal experiences with the profession.
“I had back surgery and I don’t remember a whole lot from that week, but I remember the way my nurses treated me,” Jordan recently told the Plant City Observer. “That’s what’s important. I don’t remember the pain I was in, but I remember the way they made me feel. I want to be a Pediatric ER nurse to help other kids the way they helped me.”
Along with Jordan being crowned the 2021 Strawberry Queen, Avery Surrency was chosen as first maid beside court members KellieAnne Kirkland, Brynne Murphy and Kate Turner.
“There are so many stories that you can hear right in this room regarding the queen, the pageants over the years and how it has really, in many ways, brought the community together as a whole,” Passmore said. “And it’s just fabulous that a scholarship pageant can do that because there’s one queen but there’s five [court members] – and in the old days there was seven, I think there were some years where there was nine girls – so that made an impression on all of their lives and all of those families still come and want to see that.”
For that reason Passmore and White love to make sure that all of the queen’s court are given their much-deserved attention within the exhibit as well.
“When we’re collecting pictures for the west wall, and we try to switch out some every year and get new ones, we try hard to use the ones with the court members too,” White said. “Not just the queen but the queen and court so you’re not just highlighting one person because all five of the girls go and do everything that the queen does. . . We want to highlight them as well because they spend their time and their effort and they represent Plant City and the Strawberry Festival the same way.”
On the opposite side of Jordan’s display is the exhibit’s featured queen, Catherine Fletcher. Each year the exhibit honors one past queen with a display in her honor. It’s a glimpse into the past that also reflects the character of each woman that wore the crown.
Fletcher – later Catherine Fletcher Clark after marrying – remained heavily involved in Plant City and the Strawberry Festival long after being crowned Strawberry Queen in 1940.
“She was the kindest, most gentle soul and absolutely loved everybody,” Passmore said. “She was just the most gracious lady. She was one of those people that you wanted to be like because she only saw the good in everybody so she was really loved.”
Fletcher created and chaired the first annual Strawberry Festival fashion show luncheon and later served as president of the Woman’s Club, the Junior Woman’s Club and the Arts Council. She was also a past member of the Krewe of Venus and a charter member of the Centre Club in Tampa.
“She loved to talk and she’d make you feel welcome,” White said. “It didn’t matter if she knew you or didn’t know you, if you walked in the room you knew that she wanted you to be there.”
And along the west wall of the exhibit you can take in even more pictures from queens and courts of the past, decorated in line with the festival’s 2021 theme of All Aboard. Plant City’s roots have long lied alongside the railroad. The addition of the tracks, thanks to Henry B. Plant, connected Plant City to massive markets throughout the state, allowing strawberries to be sold at a quantity previously only dreamed of. Ichepucksassa was renamed Plant City and incorporated in 1885 in honor of Plant.
All Aboard is a perfect theme for Passmore and White who first started their contributions to the Strawberry Festival over 40 years as long-standing tram captains before transitioning to the festival’s ambassador program, working in the Business and Professional Women’s Club booth and eventually spending the last 7 years working with and organizing the Strawberry Queen’s exhibit.They’ve worked in Neighborhood Village for approximately 30 years. Passmore is also vice president of the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum Society, Inc.
“The theme of All Aboard really signifies what Plant City is all about with Henry B. Plant brining the railroad to Plant City,” Passmore said. “That’s the name of the town and so we are very excited about it, especially with our Robert W. Willaford Train Museum here in Plant City.”
To assist with the display, Passmore and White received donations from the Willaford Railroad Museum, the East Hillsborough Historical Society and the Plant City Photo Archives & History Center.
You can experience the Strawberry Queen’s exhibit for yourself anytime during the Strawberry Festival at Neighborhood Village.