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Brant Summer Festival (and Strawberry Jam) 1956-2013

Last month I wrote my annual Memorial Day column using material supplied by neighboring town of Brant historian, Patty Friend, and so as the summer season gets underway and strawberries appear much on the mind of Western New Yorkers it seemed like a good idea to write another story on the history of Brant’s annual “rite” of summer, “The Brant Summer Festival.” In the photo are the 1956 contestants in the Strawberry Queen competition. Left to right are Rita Notoro of Brant, Sylvia Dial of Gowanda, Carol Wilmer of Fredonia, Judy Kuhman of Kenmore, Mary Ann Cartalano of Angola. (Ms. Dial was chosen Queen)

Actually it all started in June of 1956 when the small farming community of Brant, NY suddenly came alive when it was suggested that the town sponsor and promote an annual Strawberry Festival. After all it was a no brainer, Brant had been a large berry producing center in Southern Erie County throughout the 20th century; so why not promote the succulent sweet taste of Brant berries and help market them to the rest of the area and beyond. Of course I think we all know that local strawberries are much sweeter and jucier than those imported from the warm weather states. At leas it seems that way.

Originally it was a one day event known as the New York State Strawberry Festival; but because of its first year success beyond all expectations, it has no evolved into an annual three day weekend event in the middle of June. In that first year (1956) it was expected that crowds would be close to 10,000. However with a cooperative effort from the townspeople and strong coverage from the news media, an amazing 20,000 strawberry hungry Western New Yorkers arrived in town on a fine sunny Sunday afternoon to enjoy that first festival.

Flush with the success of that first year, the Strawberry Festival was expanded to three days in 1957. The original schedule of events started with a firemen’s parade on Friday and the selection of a Firemen’s Queen. Saturday was set aside for planned children’s activities with the crowning of a prince and princess, leaving Sunday as the grand finale of festivities including a giant parade and the presentation of the Strawberry Queen. A Strawberry Kind was also chosen, the winner being judged on the basis of who grew the best quality berries.

For whatever reason, the Strawberry Festival was discontinued after record crowds at the 1970 event. Former Governor Averill Harriman, Country Executive Edward Rath, District Attorney Mike Dillon, Milk for Health’s Paula Drew and local TV personalities Bill and Mildred Miller attended with some serving as judges. It had been a 15 year success story as thousands of vistors had come to Brant to help the local people celebrate the harvest of strawberries.

It’s been said somewhere, “you can’t keep a good man down.” In this case I guess it would relate to keeping a good idea down. It took over forty years, but in 2003 Brant supervisor Len Pero, with help from his daughter Amanda, set out to revive the success story of the former Strawberry Festival. It has now been 10 years since they revived the spirit of the former Strawberry Festival. Now it’s simply called the “Brant Summer Festival.” However, so as not to forget it’s true purpose the word “and Strawberry Jam” were added to the title.

The 10th anniversary event will take place this weekend June 21-23 with a Friday evening “Kick-Off” from the Diva Show Band. On Saturday, the Buffalo Heavies will perform at 10 a.m. followed by the GOYA Cook-off, a strawberry pie eating contest and donkey races.

The band Underground Stampede will perform in the evening. Sunday has been set aside as “Farm Days,” featuring a parade, an antique tractor pull, a Pero farm demonstration, a battle of the bands and a farmer’s market The weekend will also feature rides, games and plenty of other attractions for people of all ages.

The photo and material for this story were provided by Patty Friend and an article written by Carlton Winters in the 1970 Festival Program.
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