Plant City can point with pride to its civic clubs and organizations for all the good works done in the name of the community. Stadiums, parks, playgrounds, the library, special events and more all were put together by the civic clubs and organizations in Plant City, many of which had their beginnings in the early 1900s.
The Plant City Lions Club, founded in 1929, took on as its first major project the planning of a new festival in honor of King Strawberry, the champion of the area’s agricultural products.
Albert Schneider was a charter member of the Plant City Lions Club and its first president. With his leadership the Lions promoted the founding of the first festival, at that time called the Plant City Strawberry Festival. Not only did the Lions Club work to promote the festival, but also it was the directing organization of the queen contest for most of the years of the festival. Beginning in 1930, the festival ran every year until World War II disrupted the nation. Jane Langford was crowned queen in 1941 and reigned until 1948. The Norman McLeod American Legion Post 27 revived the event in 1947, and the next strawberry festival was held in 1948. This time, the Plant City Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees) was in charge of the contest.
In the late 1950s, the Jaycees turned the contest over to the Lions Club, and the Lions Club and Lions Auxiliary have continued to direct the contest ever since. The groups made changes, too. Believing the contest could use a little more excitement, in about 1972, J. Myrle Henry and fellow Lions sought to bring in a celebrity to perform the coronation. Henry found the name of Dale Evans, who, with her husband, Roy Rogers, was popular at the time. Henry called her directly and spoke with Rogers at home, and he put Evans on the telephone.
Evans wanted a $2,000 fee, airfare, hotel and meals. Henry went to a few other Lions, and they agreed to underwrite the cost, to be reimbursed if enough revenue was collected. On the day she arrived at the Tampa airport, two carloads of Plant City Lions drove to meet Evans. On the return trip, they stopped for dinner at the famed Las Novedades, in Ybor City.
The following day Al Berry, of local radio station WPAL, interviewed Evans in a church library, where she also autographed some of her books. In those years the contest took place on two different nights during the festival. The first night, usually a Monday, the seven finalists were selected. Then on Thursday, the final selection and the coronation took place.
On Wednesday night, the Lions Club arranged for Plant City’s first press conference, held in the community room of the Hillsboro Bank, at the corner of Reynolds and Evers streets. The press conference was orchestrated by Henry and Berry, with assistance from Gerald Hooker, city commissioner and Lions Club president, along with current queen Sherrie Chambers (Mueller).
After the conference, the Lions took Evans to the Branch Ranch for a meal prepared by Mary Branch herself. Henry said Evans relished the meal and called Roy and told him of the wonderful meal. That later developed into the Roy Rogers restaurant chain.
On Thursday, Evans crowned Linda Heath the 1972 Florida Strawberry Festival Queen.
This was the beginning of the celebrity and entertainment concept. The following year, with Al Berry’s and Leo Gilman’s contacts, the Lions brought Pat Boone for another outstanding success, and the following year, the star was Anita Bryant, along with Gunsmoke’s Festus. The Florida Strawberry Festival Association took over the entertainment at about that time.
It was also about this time that Henry and Hooker, whose family owned and operated Hooker’s Department Store, decided to dress properly for the festival. They looked into the possibilities in Hooker’s Department Store and thought that the red jackets on the racks would be a nice touch — red for the bright succulent strawberries. They wore them every night, and soon, it became the proper attire for the festival. And today, the red coats are worn by the members of the Florida Strawberry Festival Association during the 11 days of the Festival.
We hope you enjoy the festival and the small-town atmosphere of Plant City.
Gil Gott is executive director of the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center.