East Texas Yamboree: Gilmer's annual festival celebrates 80th year

The 79th annual East Texas Yamboree Queen's Coronation, on Wednesday October 19, 2016, at the Gilmer Civic Center. (Michael Cavazos/News-Journal Photo)

The Yamboree is more than a festival for President Brandon Garmon: It’s a homecoming.

That’s why he says it’s always so successful year after year.

“There are a lot of memories that go back many, many generations and people coming back together to kind of reminisce and to enjoy some of those memories that they grew up with,” he said.

This year’s East Texas Yamboree — the festival’s 80th year — takes place mid-October in Gilmer, providing a multitude of activities for the families coming home. They range from a livestock show to a barn dance to the annual two-night coronation of the Yam Queen, where seven local girls who form the royal court will dazzle crowds in specially-made, jewel-encrusted dresses.

The Yamboree first began in October 1935. Upshur County farmers had been producing yams since about 1890, but the crop was quarantined because of a weevil infestation. When that quarantine lifted, a festival was planned to celebrate the harvest. The festival is the second-oldest in Texas, with volunteers throughout Upshur County and from the service clubs who nominate Yam Queen candidates working to make it happen each year.

“It’s a major deal when you think of in two weeks, you know, raising approximately $200,000 in Upshur County,” Garmon said. “That means that a lot of people care about the Yamboree, they care about these girls and they want that tradition to carry on. So there’s a lot of public interest in Upshur County and the Yamboree and it being a generational family event and a big homecoming for everybody in October.”

Although the Yamboree occurs in October, the planning and preparation take place year-round.

“Many people don’t realize that the Yamboree really is truly a year-round event,” Garmon said. “We start with meetings, planning, we select the girls — the service clubs actually select their candidates.”

The candidates, who spend two weeks vying for the Yam Queen crown, sell tickets and raise community donations for the Yamboree and the scholarships it gives out each year. The Yam Queen candidate who raises the most money is declared queen at a special “counting of the money” event in the summer and officially crowned at the Yamboree coronation ceremony.

This year’s Yam Queen is Gilmer High School senior Madison Dean, who was nominated by the Gilmer Rotary Club.

Her ladies-in-waiting include Glenna Vhae Langford, nominated by the Kiwanis Club; Rainy Dollison, nominated by the Lions Club; Jasmine Chenelle Boykins, nominated by the Iris Garden Club; Lillie Amy-Marie Jenkins, representing the Bluebonnet Literacy Club; and Allie Lange Fennell, representing Beta Sigma Phi. Brianna Esquivel, representing the Twentieth Century Club, was named Yamboree Princess after raising the second-highest amount of money in the Yam Queen race.

Dean said it felt great to be named Yam Queen, especially because she has two cousins and an aunt who have also taken part in the royal Yam court.

“It feels good to be able to carry out the tradition,” she said.

She said she is looking forward to the Yamboree, with her favorite part probably being the parade, which includes the Yam Queen and her ladies-in-waiting traveling in elaborate floats.

Garmon said the race for Yam Queen can get very competitive, especially this year as several of the candidates had mothers, aunts and other relatives who have also run for Yam Queen. But that competition ends when the race is over, he said.

“You see them come together and everybody’s interested in making the Yamboree continue on for many, many years,” he said.

Garmon’s no stranger to the Yamboree either. He participated in the Yamboree parades and marching contests as a member of the Gilmer Buckeye Band. Now his children, Carter and Caroline, and his wife Kim take part in the fun as well. Carter has served as a member of the Queen’s Court under several Yam Queens, while Kim serves on several Yamboree committees and through Beta Sigma Phi.

Family- and volunteer-involvement is what makes the Yamboree so special, Garmon said.

“The Yamboree wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the people that we have, volunteers who work to make it come together,” he said.

If you go

  • When: Oct. 18-21
  • Where: Activities throughout Gilmer, primarily downtown and at Yamboree Park
  • Information: www.yamboree.com