UPSHUR COUNTY – This series of regular articles explores aspects of Upshur County’s history, culture, or people honored by the West Virginia Highway Historical Marker Program. The State Register lists 20 of these iconic white plates in Upshur County and each article will present as much information on the subject as possible. With the return of Upshur County’s famous celebration, the eighth episode deals with Buckhannon’s everlasting celebration, the West Virginia Strawberry Festival.
As spring returns to the region, bringing warmer weather and a burst of greenery, one thing many people look forward to is the availability of fresh produce, including the succulent strawberry. While the wild strawberries found in the mountainous regions of the state are smaller and possess a different taste than the domesticated variety, their presence is a sure sign that winter is behind us. To celebrate the renewal of spring, people throughout history and the world have held various rituals and festivities to welcome life into the world, and some of them have traditionally focused on the harvest of strawberries.
It’s worth noting that while our town’s Strawberry Festival is arguably the best known to locals, Buckhannon is far from the only place to hold one. In fact, many places across the country – and even other countries – have held their own strawberry festivals to celebrate and promote the cultivation of the fruit, including in climates where you wouldn’t expect it grows easily. Some notable places that still hold Strawberry Festivals in the spring and summer include Billings, Montana, Cabot, Arkansas, Dayton, Tennessee, North Canton, Connecticut, Oxnard, California, Pasadena, Texas, Plant City, Florida, Brasilia, Brazil, Suonenjoki, Finland and Panchgani, India.
The West Virginia Strawberry Festival has its roots in the Great Depression. Originally named Central Strawberry Festival, it was first held on June 3, 1936; his intention was to promote strawberry growers in central West Virginia and help them increase their sales. It all started when WVWC Professor JE Judson remarked to the local Lions Club and Chamber of Commerce that the climate and soil in Upshur County was ideal for growing strawberries and proposed that a festival be started to encourage their production. Only three weeks after Judson’s proposal, the Central Strawberry Festival was born. Although the festival initially lasted only one day, over time it has grown to encompass an entire week of celebrations, parades and carnival. The first Strawberry Queen was Laura Jean Watson, who was crowned on the steps of the courthouse by then-Governor H. Guy Kump. Judson served as chair of the program committee in its early days.
Only the second year of its life, the festival has grown to two days and added a reception for the Queen and her attendants at Agnes Howard Hall, a ball for the Queen and the princesses, a parade and horse show, musical events and Suite. From 1943 to 1948, the festival was not held, as the number of people serving in World War II and resource rationing prevented planning for the celebration. The Jubilee would return on June 2-3, 1949, with much excitement upon its return. Ten years later, in 1959, the name was officially changed to West Virginia Strawberry Festival, and it began operating for three days. In 1956 a fire brigade parade was added and the carnival also became a major attraction during this decade. Other attractions included the Queen’s Coronation and Ball, auctions, exhibitions, a square dance and the Grand Parade.
Over time, the festival’s popularity grew far beyond Upshur County, attracting people from surrounding counties, and eventually from across the state. For example, in 1969 the Strawberry King was Reverend Samuel McCain of Fairmont, who had grown 9,000 strawberry plants, and the Queen was Susan Alison of Taylor County. By the late 1970s, the festival ran for five consecutive days, featured numerous parades, and drew marching bands from across the United States—up to 60 by 1980. Some even came entirely from other countries. The Grand Feature Parade was first televised on WBOY in 1990 and the following year was seen by approximately 340,000 viewers.
Even though the strawberry industry in Upshur County isn’t what it used to be, the annual Strawberry Festival brings the whole community together in a way that no other time of year can match. . After a two-year absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival made a triumphant return to the streets of Buckhannon and once again welcomed visitors from here and abroad to celebrate the warmth of spring and a single red fruit.