For the past 34 years, people from all over Texas and neighboring states have flocked to the Tomato Capital for one of East Texas’ iconic celebrations: Tomato Fest.
Now in its 35th year, the celebration of the locally grown tomato has expanded to include a dodgeball tournament, a “Chopped” style cooking contest and a concert with East Texas legend Neal McCoy.
“It’s a celebration of Jacksonville’s heritage and showcasing Jacksonville’s treasures,” said Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce President Peggy Renfro.
Always the second Saturday in June, this will be the third year Tomato Fest will include a week’s worth of activities.
Three new events debut this year: a citywide church singing concert on June 2; a “Chopped” competition held at the Salt Kitchen at Kiepersol on June 5 and a powerlifting contest at the Norman Activity Center on June 8.
Of course, the festival will still include fan favorites such as the dodgeball tournament, a tennis tournament and the street festival. The city still holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for the world’s largest bowl of salsa, prepared at Tomato Fest in 2010.
“The (tennis) tournament is set in a festival atmosphere that gives visitors an opportunity to enjoy themselves during the matches,” said Jacksonville Tennis Association member Sam Hopkins.
While the city likes to give longtime festival attendees what they like most, such as the tomato eating contest, organizers also focus on keeping the festival fresh.
“There’s a group of dedicated volunteers, supported by businesses to create a variety of activities for the entire family. Each year, the volunteers evaluate the events and see what other opportunities can be added to benefit the festival and businesses,” Renfro said.
Crowds have come to love the celebrity Tomato Eating Contest, which pits the sheriff, bank presidents, county commissioners and city officials against each other in a test of wills to see who can eat the most tomatoes. There’s also a kids’ version of the popular event.
“Kids line up for this opportunity,” Renfro said.
The Farmer’s Market also draws crowds “as people will drive for hours just to purchase a Jacksonville tomato,” according to Renfro.
According to local documentation by the Chamber, tomatoes were first grown for commercial distribution in the Jacksonville area of Cherokee County, near Craft, in 1897. That year, tomatoes from Jacksonville were sold in St. Louis, Kentucky, Kansas City and Denver.
Currently, about 15,000 acres of tomatoes are harvested annually and shipped all over the country and to Canada.
The rich, red loam and sandy soil with iron ore and other minerals, along with a temperate climate, makes Jacksonville the ideal location to grow the sweet, firm, bright fruits.
With cooking contests, craft fairs, live music, face painting and fun, Tomato Fest offers “so much that will keep the family entertained in downtown Jacksonville,” Renfro said. “Jacksonville has so much to offer and this is an added bonus promoting the largest festival in Cherokee County.”