It’s a peach of a festival, Winona, (and those pies are delicious)
I can’t remember just when I started noticing the Winona Peach Festival had changed from the modest country affair it had been in 1982. But at some point, in the 1990s or maybe 2000s, I realized I had to park half a mile away.
The place was teeming, dizzyingly so. There were fleets of buses. It was like running into someone you last saw in their childhood and now they’re a 7-foot-one point guard for the Raptors.
This year it’s ripened into a robust 50-year-old (it typically attracts around 200,000 visitors over the course of its weekend, with almost 2,000 of the can’t-get-anywhere-else peach pies for sale).
And for its semi-centennial anniversary it has some special plans, such as a time capsule, a sky diver and bigger closing ceremonies.
The Winona Peach Festival was one of the first events I covered when, new to the Hamilton area, I worked for the Stoney Creek News. That was the early ’80s, when Stoney Creek was sovereign unto itself, unamalgamated and free.
Even then, in its 15th year, the festival had grown from the days in the late 1960s when all the entertainment could be fitted on the flat bed of a truck. But in the early ’80s, it was still more quaint than colossal.
And yet, the whole festival is now put up, put on and taken down every year strictly by volunteers. No staff. I’m not sure you can say that about any other festival of its size.
The turning point, say volunteers Georgina Beattie and Terry Gudgeon, was the mid-1980s when the festival went from two to three days.
“That was an important decision,” says Georgina.
The peach festival started, Georgina remembers, as a kind of small townish centennial project. It wasn’t even called the Winona Peach Festival but the Festival of Fruit, and even that, the festival on Aug. 18-19, 1967, was but one of a series of four events that summer meant to mark the milestones of the growing season.
Georgina was a contestant in the first Peach Queen Pageant.
“It was not a beauty contest,” she says.
“It never has been. But back then it was mostly about the actual dress, the historical costumery.”
The look the contestants were going for was 1867. “I made it (her dress) myself … with help,” she adds with a smile. Johanna Van Essen won the pageant. Georgina Smith (that was her name back then — yes, of the E.D. Smith family) and Lindsay Poole were the ladies-inwaiting.
Georgina says she would love to see people from the early days of the festival come back for the 50th — former queens, ladies in waiting, volunteers and so on.
The pageant is one of the constants at the festival, like the peach pies (Fifty United Church has exclusive rights to make them), mascots Peter and Paula Peach, the DeWildt Chrysler vehicle prize and several other elements. Actually, after the first pageant, there wasn’t another until 1974 but since then it’s been held every year.
Georgina’s pitched in on every one of the festival’s 50 years. The effort takes hundreds of volunteers, in contrast with the dozens needed in the earlier days. Volunteers. The soul of the event. People like Terry Gudgeon, the festival’s director of advertising and chair of parking and buses. He’s been involved for decades, but not quite as long as Georgina.
“You’re so burned out by the end of the weekend. You volunteer till you drop.” But, he adds, it’s worth every second.
Now, as head of parking and buses, including the shuttle from Eastgate Square, he’s got a team of 200 volunteers.
“There are buses coming in from North Bay, Owen Sound,” he says.
The festival continues to grow. It does have its challenges. One is that they’ve lost many of their trees in Winona Park to ash bore. But they are a resourceful bunch and they do it for the cause. The monies made at the festival go directly back into the community.
This year’s festival runs Aug. 25 (5 p.m. to 11 p.m.), Aug. 26 (10 a.m. to 11 p.m.) and Aug. 27 (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.). For more, 905-643-2084.
Longtime festival volunteers Terry Gudgeon, Bob Lockwood, Gina Church and Georgina Beattie pose with the grand prize in this year’s festival draw, a 2017 Jeep Sport Wrangler.
A historic photo from the first Winona Peach Festival.