In a five part series written for The Madison Press, John Hiles, first London Strawberry Festival vice-president, described the evolution of the former London Marigold Festival into the new and growing London Strawberry Festival.
The following is the first installment of the series as it was published in the May 9, 2001 edition of The Madison Press.
The London Marigold Festival first started in 1983, on the downtown streets in London where it flourished and grew rapidly during the following five years.
Although it became popular with the community, there were a few who didn't appreciate the special time of fellowship it inspired among the town people and their guests. It was a wonderful atmosphere of fun and excitement.
During that time, my family and I lived just a few blocks away on East First Street. We invited family and friends to come visit during the festival.
After enjoying a barbecue and time together, we’d walk the couple of blocks to South Main Street and join the rest of our London neighbors for an evening of entertainment, rides, games, and of course more food. Festival food! Nothing like it in the world.
Each year the festival grew, adding on more rides, games and food. Several local organizations got involved making it a grand ole time for everyone of all ages to enjoy.
By it's fifth year, the London Marigold Festival had grown very large in size and attendance. It was a very successful and popular festival, destined for greatness.
Then came devastating news. The festival was going to be relocated. It seemed that due to the efforts of one individual, several merchants were persuaded that the London Marigold Festival was not in their best interests. The argument was so compelling that a few merchants were able to convince certain city officials the festival needed to relocate.
Under pressure by a few, the festival was moved. It proved to be a fatal blow to the longevity and continued success of the London Marigold Festival.
When I heard what had happened, somehow I knew this would be the beginning of the end for our festival. I sat down and penned a letter to the editor of The Madison Press which if memory serves me right took up nearly a half page in the "Letters to the Editor" section.
Year by year the festival attendance dwindled. The interest of the community turned away. What had been a great community affair now lay wounded and dying. As the years went by, many people volunteered their efforts and tried to keep the festival alive, but despite all their hard work, an end was certain.
Eighteen years have passed and now we come to the year 2000. I'd read in The Madison Press the festival organizers were considering closing the London Marigold Festival for good. Sighting lack of community support, failing attendance, thinning vendors, it shrunk to nearly nothing. It was on it’s last leg and ready to pass into oblivion.
Then several new volunteers came on board with fresh ideas and enthusiasm. They brought with them a vision which could turn the festival completely around. The seasoned and burned out committee members were very skeptical and pessimistic at first. The members remained optimistic and persistent. They knew it could be revived.
Reluctantly, the veteran members gave in and decided to go another year and test these new uncertain waters. What happened surprised everyone!
The following is the second installment of the series as it was published in the May 16, 2001 edition of The Madison Press.
With new blood on board, life began to appear in the old dying dinosaur. The committee had a long way to go before the August 2000 London Marigold Festival would be deemed a success.
Success would not be defined by a super attendance and a substantial increase to the amount of participating vendors and sideshows, but how the community and its guests responded to fresh ideas and concepts.
I suppose the greatest new idea was to increase the live entertainment and diversity it. Many suggestions surfaced and it came down to three things: a battle of the bands; a following evening of live entertainment by the top two winners; and an all out county wide invitational gospel song fest.
A lot of preparation went into pulling off a successful battle of the bands. This had never been attempted by anyone on the committee. A media campaign to attract entertainment groups was successful. There were enough contestants to ensure a full evening of entertainment for the audience.
The winning band received a grand prize of $700. Second place $300. Third place $100. First and second place winners became the Saturday evening entertainment in order to collect their prize.
It was a great plan and it worked beautifully. In one effort, Friday and Saturday night's entertainment was booked.
The gospel entertainment was only one invitational away.
A Christian brother of mine, Brian Musgrave, received an invitation to attend one of the committee meetings to discuss the idea of our church, the Apostolic Gospel Church of Mt. Sterling, hosting the gospel song fest. He accepted the invitation and invited me along. (I coordinate the setup of the sound equipment and operate it. That’s how I got involved with the festival.)
The invitation came as a result of our exposure in the previous three years of putting on monthly gospel song fests, primarily in the downtown gazebo of Mr. Sterling.
At that meeting, Brian and I decided to host the gospel song fest as representatives of our church organization. It took months of work and planning, but the pay off was tremendous. We were given the Junior Fair Arena for a four hour sing.
We sent an invitation to every Christian church in Madison County, inviting gospel groups, special singers, and choirs to perform at the 18th annual London Marigold Festival.
We gave a special invitation to a national gospel group, "The Gunns" based in St. Louis, to be the top billed group. The response from the churches and community was overwhelming. Over 20 some gospel groups performed for over four hours to a crowd of several hundred people!
Before, during, and after the song fest, most of the crowd made their way onto the midway of the festival, providing the vendors with customers and bolstering sales.
Aside from these successful endeavors, there were others. All in all, we were told that attendance at the 2000 festival was higher that it had been in the previous three years.
What no one was aware of was an effort by the newest committee members to make several changes to the festival which would require the approval of many people and other governing bodies outside of the festival committee.
The first and most important hurdle to overcome was getting everyone on the committee to agree to the changes, so our pursuit for approval would be unified and focused. We knew we were going to face some outside opposition. From where and whom we didn't know, but we knew we had to be prepared for anything.
These requests and subsequent changes to the 18 year old London Marigold Festival were going to be drastic and would consume hundreds of volunteer hours to achieve.
We met for weeks planning and working on the 2000 London Marigold Festival while also discussing the 2001 festival and trying to bring our thoughts and ideas into agreement.
One night following one of our regular planning meetings, the new issues were discussed one more time. We took a vote, the result was unanimous, then we committed ourselves to doing all that we could to turn those changes into a successful festival for everyone in our wonderful community to enjoy for many years to come.
The following is the third installment of the series as it was published in the May 23, 2001 edition of The Madison Press.
In looking to the future of the London Marigold Festival, we gauged our thoughts on it's past performance. Although the 2000 show was yet to happen, we felt that if extreme changes were not made that all our efforts and new ideas would only serve to prolong the inevitable demise of the festival.
We reasoned why the festival could not survive.
First, the festival followed too soon behind our county fair on the same grounds.
Second, it was only preceding the Ohio State Fair by a few weeks.
Third, it came at a time when most families with school age children are hard pressed for extra spending cash after purchasing all the necessary back to school clothing and supplies.
Fourth, it’s too close to the end of vacation season when again, most families have exhausted all budgeted funds.
Fifth, even though it had been 12 years since it was removed from the streets of downtown London, the community was still sore and unsupportive over that move.
It was decided that three things needed to be done to overcome all five of these problems. Change the time of year, change the location, and change the theme to an edible item which would coincide with the date change.
The committee members agreed to the following: change the time of year from the end of the festival season to the beginning, June; change the theme from the Marigold to the edible item of the Strawberry, vine ripe in the month of June; and the most drastic, locate the new London Strawberry Festival downtown.
It seemed the most sensible plan if we were going to try and overcome all the obstacles as I outlined above. We immediately began taking steps to achieve our objectives. As a member of the Ohio Festivals and Events Association, we had to apply to them to approve the changes. We were informed that the OFEA seldom grants any requests for serious changes in the established agenda of it's festivals. Also, never in the history of the OFEA had it granted a festival three changes at the same time.
It was very fortunate that one of the long-standing members of our festival committee is the secretary/treasurer for the OFEA, Donna Warner. She currently holds the position of treasurer and director of queens for our London festival. Through her insight and knowledge of the OFEA, we made proper request for changes.
We had to wait for several months till the OFEA held a meeting in late summer of 2000 and discuss the requests we were petitioning them for.
A month before the August 2000 London Marigold Festival, Donna gave us their answer.
The following is the fourth installment of the series as it was published in the May 30, 2001 edition of The Madison Press.
Having waited for months to hear from the Ohio Festivals and Events Association on the three requests we’d asked them for, change of theme, change of date, change of location, we knew the odds were against us. Without their approval, the history of London's longest running festival would come to an end.
During one of our regular meetings, Donna Warner gave us their answer. She told us the decision of the OFEA was unanimous.
Immediately I felt a rush of disappointment go through me, knowing that the history of the OFEA turning down requests for single or double changes in a festival's structure was the norm. A unanimous decision certainly wouldn't mean that they all said yes.
YES! What? Did I hear Donna right? Then the whole committee exploded with excitement and enthusiasm. She said yes. The OFEA unanimously voted yes. The news was unbelievable. It set off a charge in our group that has never died down. Yes! We could change our festival to the Strawberry Festival, move it to the vine ripe strawberry month of June, and move it to downtown London!
We were so excited! It simply made our day. We calmed down and appointed Kerry Davidson to represent us before the London City Council. In order to make it work, we had to have the approval of the city government.
At the next London City Council meeting, Kerry presented the same requests. The council asked a few questions, and along with her answers Kerry presented a petition to put the festival downtown, signed by a 90 percent majority of the downtown merchants!
After a short discussion, the London City Council took a vote. Their decision was also unanimous. Yes!
With the unanimous backing of the OFEA and London City Council, along with 90 percent of the downtown merchants, we were off and running. The foundation was in place for a brand new London Strawberry Festival.
We also are the only Strawberry Festival in the OFEA. We had serious work ahead of us and the last Marigold Festival to finish out.
The downtown area had to be surveyed. State and local codes, ordinances, and regulations had to be considered in every phase of planning.
All the downtown area had to be precisely measured. Every foot of the festival grounds needed to be accounted for. Every fire hydrant, alley way, business entrance, sewer opening, electrical line had to be drawn on a map to scale. The placement of every vendor, game booth, entertainment stage, and so on had to fit into the grounds meeting every legal requirement.
Follow up meetings with city council, the general public, suppliers, heads of city departments had to be scheduled. An agenda, a plan had to be made and worked. A tremendous job was ahead of us.
The first step was to work closely with city government and plan the festival grounds which would meet with everyone's approval and meet all legal requirements. The map was a huge undertaking and took weeks to produce. After each meeting with the city, it had to be modified to comply with the wishes of the city officials.
After going through three modifications, the concerns and needs of the merchants were next to consider. After having personally met with many merchants who would be directly affected by the festival layout, the map was modified a couple more times for a total of five modifications from its first printing. This involved literally hundreds of hours at the computer.
Finally, at a meeting in mid January 2001, the plans for the festival grounds met with approval.
In attendance at that meeting were: London Mayor David Eades, Safety-Services Director Steve Hume, London City Council members, Police Chief Mike Creamer, Fire Chief Paul "Buck" VanHorn, Street Department Director Bob Verts, downtown merchants, festival president Mark Blazier, festival vice president John Hiles, festival media spokesperson and director of entertainment Kerry Davidson.
With final approval on the festival grounds behind us, it was time to work on filling the festival with a great lineup of interesting things to do and enjoy.
The following is the fifth and final installment of the series as it was published in the June 6, 2001 edition of The Madison Press.
The work of obtaining final approval from city management and government concerning the festival grounds, took us past a critical time point. We had to wait for final approval before we could send out our invitations to the vendors and entertainers.
This was a project that according to Chuck Jackson, president of the OFEA, should have been done no later than the middle of December. We would be lucky to find anyone who had not already booked into another event on our date.
Immediately the festival was posted on three Internet sites. Also, a list was compiled from the records of the past several Marigold Festival. Over 150 packets were mailed which contained the new festival rules, contract, and other vital information.
As time went on, other packets were sent to people responding on the Internet. Eventually word of mouth spread the news of the new festival and the response has been way beyond our expectations.
During the course of each day I receive several phone calls, emails, and letters requesting admission in the festival or for information.
We've obtained a professional entertainment stage company. They'll also be providing sound and lights operated by trained, experienced technicians. This will help all the entertainers deliver a good performance to our guests.
In a few months, the organizers of the first annual London Strawberry Festival have put together a festival that other festivals take a year to produce. We're not out of the woods yet. There's a lot more to go before we can let up and catch our breath.
Our need for volunteers is huge. The time is growing shorter. We need people who will take one of our projects and go with it. To get the point across, let me share a partial list of our scheduled entertainment and special events with you.
Seven bands to perform on the main stage, 5K race, baby contest, three beauty pageants, raffles, first annual Governor Jim Rhodes memorial parade, poker run, Strawberry recipe and baking contest, Karaoke contest, just to name a few.
Barricades need manned, Coca Cola trailers need workers, helpers for entertainment setup and tear down, assembly of both parades.
A couple of the things which will carry with us from year to year will be the dedication of our Saturday night parade to the memory of our late Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes and the addition of the world's largest gathering of the Cobra Sports Car Show.
This first year we are expected to host over 200 Cobras. To date the record gathering was 86. Media coverage will be at a premium for this show. The car show will be raising money for the Cystic Fibroses Foundation by raffle drawings for various merchandise, including an unassembled Cobra car kit valued at over $15,000!
Although this is the first year for the London Strawberry Festival, it is already being marked in many books as a place to visit. Calls from as far away as Florida and Illinois have come in, as well as many other states.
Several vendors, entertainers, and the like have been turned away. Only a few booths remain for sale to crafters and miscellaneous vendors.
On June 20, at 5 p.m., the fun begins. Rides, a wonderful variety of food, entertainment, crafts, and much more will be waiting to delight your senses. Invite your families and friends to enjoy the newest premier sensation of central Ohio, the fabulous London Strawberry Festival.
It has been nearly 3 years since that 5 part story was written for the Madison Press. Though the festival's have come and gone. Lots of fun and memories. The festival now moves on toward the 2004 show and we all hope to see you there. Come make history with us.
2003 Strawberry Festival
The festival saw many changes during the preparations for this year. President John Hiles, Treasurer, Debbie Hiles & Queens director Donna Warner resigned. John Stahl became president, and Holly Stockham was appointed as queen’s director with assistant director Kelly Maynard, Melissa McClelland became treasurer, and Kevin Stockham became concessions chair. The festival grew considerably and made many changes in operating philosophy due to this growth.
The queens program expanded by adding the Young Miss Division. Guidelines for the Little Miss Shortcake were amended and a float was purchased. Royalty members visited approximately 50 different festivals throughout Ohio and appeared in many radio, tv and newspaper interviews. The entertainment committee, working with sponsors decided to bring in a national level recording artist for the first time.
2004 Strawberry Festival
More changes and growth occurred for the festival during this very hectic year. Assistant queen’s director Kelly Maynard & treasurer Melissa McClelland resigned.
The entertainment committee again opted for national country recording artist, Kevin Sharp and the 1960’s group The Four Mints. They also included many local artists and youth entertainers. The queens program expanded once more by adding the Mr Shortcake division. The float was also redecorated and enlarged. In addition to the queens luncheon a reception was held for the new court. The attendance for 2004 was just over 27,000 for the week. This is the largest recorded attendance for the festival despite having rain on Thursday. The COBRA car event continued to draw very well and we were a stop on the Cable TV station The Outdoor Network as well as local radio stations K95FM and WCYC 105.1 FM
The London Strawberry Festival Board decided to involve more community organizations and activities during this year’s event.
2005 Strawberry Festival, 23rd year June 22-25
Entertainment for this year opened with McGuffey Lane creating the largest opening night crowd in the festival history. Friday featured Pete Schlagel. His unique country act included the use of video screens to project his stage show and to view his music videos, currently featured on CMT. The COBRA’s joined us Saturday. The festival was featured in Today’s RV Magazine and Better Living magazine. Channel 4 news covered the festival during the royalty competition, interviewing contestants. This year’s queen, Sarah Green fulfilled her duties to the festival and left for Navy boot camp the next day.
Several contests were revived and added this year. They included the cake & cookie decorating contest, strawberry food contest, art contest, floral contest, & coloring contest.
2006 Strawberry Festival 24th year June 21-24
Exile was our spotlighted entertainment this year. Members of this group were great to work with & even permitted our dignitaries & royalty a behind the scenes tour of their bus. Rain, unfortunately put delays on our royalty competition. Despite the rain, several girls competed in one of the toughest competitions ever. Maggie Pellow joined the board and for the second year was instrumental in our information booth. Entries in the contests increased dramatically.
2007 London Strawberry Festival 25th year June 20-23
This was an exciting year as it marked our 25th Anniversary. The festival celebrated with several Commemorative items including a history/cookbook, special charms, buttons, pins and shirts. Shenandoah andMcGuffey Lane headed our entertainment for the year. The queens float underwent major redesign. We added the Little Mr. and Prince to our royalty. Our Royalty played hostesses to over 300 visiting royalty and chaperones.
2008 London Strawberry Festival 26th year June 18-21
T Graham Brown headlined our entertainment this year. We changed some of our youth contests this year and added the Shoebox float contest. Our queen went above & beyond in her traveling, visiting more than double the required events. The festival went very well until our final evening when rain and high winds put an early end to the festivities. Unfortunately this canceled many of the royalty events & forced crowning of the 2008 Queen to be held in Jillian’s. Many vendors and the stage suffered damage due to the wind and rain. Street lights were even damaged. The bad weather continued off & on the remainder of the summer & fall. The festival was featured on TV with the morning show.
2009 London Strawberry Festival 27th year
2010 London Strawberry Festival 28th year
This year we shortened the festival by one day. This decision was made in an effort to streamline events and to redirect funds into better entertainment. The festival now opens on Thursday morning instead of Wednesday evening, eliminating one parade and evening entertainment. Vendor setup now begins on Wednesday evening and the royalty interviews were moved from early afternoon to evening hours.
2011 London Strawberry Festival 29th year
2012 London Strawberry Festival 30th year
This marked our 30th Anniversary. Ricochet was our headline act this year. They put on a good show but were drastically late starting as the lead singer missed his flight and arrived at the Columbus airport aft the scheduled start of the event. We dropped our Little Mr. & Prince divisions this year.
2013 London Strawberry Festival 31st year June 20-22
2014 London Strawberry Festival 32nd year June 19-21
We opened the baby contest to entries from anywhere in the US. This was the first year we held our Queen’s luncheon at the London High School. The move was due to a conflict on the fairgrounds and a lot of construction. The move was greatly appreciated. Our entertainment consisted of a great selection of local entertainers. The weather was perfect this year. We adjusted the age of the Shortcake division and added the Toddler division to the baby contest.
2015 London Strawberry Festival 32nd year June 25-27
We had a year filled with rain all three days of the festival. Despite the weather, the festival continued as many of its activities as possible. The kiddie tractor pull had to be canceled due to the heavy rain and lightening on Friday. Our royalty contest managed to avoid most of the rain on Thursday and a list rain during the parade and crowning on Saturday. The rain caused the baby contest to be moved into the old London Grill but did not affect the first 5K. The Mr. Shortcake division was dropped.
2016 London Strawberry Festival 33rd year June 23-25
This year was very nice as far as the weather. YEAH!!!!! All activities went as planned. We continued with the 5K, introduced a car show, motorcycle show, and brought back the karaoke contest. We produced a program book for the first time that was distributed throughout the entire county.
2017 London Strawberry Festival 44th year June 22-24
2017 was a year of adventures. Our weather was great Thursday and Saturday. Unfortunately, we were drenched rained on Friday. Despite the rain, the car show continued. Our royalty kept everyone"s spirits up with 50's style music and dancing in the rain, proudly wearing, their poodle skirts & saddle shoes. This year's queen's court had the opportunity in September 2016 to attend the Miss America Pageant in New Jersey.