Woodleaf celebrates the tomato, community with second festival

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Kathy Chaffin
WOODLEAF ó Every once in a while in my job as a reporter, I stumble upon a big scoop.
Now I’m not talking about murder and mayhem. I’ll write those stories if I must, but I take no pleasure in them. The scoop I discovered at the Woodleaf Tomato Festival at Unity Presbyterian Church Saturday brought me pure delight.
Let me tell you up front this is big news, really, really big news. Lucas Safrit ó also known as “Tomato Tom,” the (in his words) “head honcho mascot” of the festival ó spilled the beans.
“You may find this interesting,” he said in a tone way too serious for a 12-year-old. I listened intently, my pen poised, as he confessed, “Tomato Tom does not like tomatoes.”
What?!! I thought to myself, already envisioning news sources across the country picking up the confession. I was still trying to recover from shock when his mother, one of the festival organizers, chimed in, “But he likes tomato products.”
Patti Safrit began to name all the tomato products her son eats, and there were several.
I listened politely, then returned my attention to Tomato Tom, whose likeness is featured on this year’s Woodleaf Tomato Festival souvenir T-shirts selling for $10 apiece. He explained, “I just don’t like chunks of tomato.”
“But if you had to,” I asked this earnest young man in my most official reporter tone, “if you absolutely had to, in order to continue as festival mascot, would you eat a raw tomato?”
“Yes,” Tomato Tom responded with a confidence that would have made the Woodleaf Tomato Festival Committee proud. I smiled at Lucas, the boy behind the mascot in his brown overalls, bandanna and straw hat, and added him to my list of favorite interviews.
The Safrit family was manning the “Woodleaf General Store” booth. Among their offerings: bags of starter kits for yeast bread, canned goods, children’s books, collectible sports cards, handcrafted jewelry and pots of aloe, lavender and shasta daisies.
Absolutely not for sale were the three huge tomatoes displayed with a handwritten sign, “We thank you, Lord, for homegrown tomatoes.” Patti Safrit said people had tried unsuccessfully to buy them.
On another side of the table, Helen Penninger Waller, 88, of Needmore Road bought the last of three dozen “Tomato Splats” from the Safrits. Waller plans to use the tomato squeeze ball to rebuild strength in her recently-broken arm.
Lucas “Tomato Tom” Safrit was selling sports cards, which were the favorite part of the festival for 9-year-old Vance Harkey. He used money given to him by his grandfather, James “Spanky” Moore, to expand his own collection.
Vance, who has bright red hair and freckles, spent even more of his grandfather’s money on two bowls of homemade ice cream ó vanilla for Moore and chocolate for himself.
Moore, the head deacon at Unity Presbyterian, sat on the back of a flatbed trailer selling bottles of water and cans of soft drinks chilling in tubs of ice.
Even though the 80-some-degree temperatures were kind and the cool breeze downright divine, the drinks sold quickly. At a dollar apiece, about midway through the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. festival, Moore had already taken in more than $400 and run out of the crowd favorite ó Cheerwine.
Some of the venders at the festival were raising money for Unity Presbyterian’s building fund for a new fellowship hall, while others had paid fees to set up their own tables of crafts and food. There was also a silent auction and plenty of door prizes.
It took me a while to find the minister, the Rev. Jennie Hemrick, though when I saw her, I couldn’t imagine why. A church member had already told me, “She looks like a big tomato.”
Indeed, Hemrick was dressed as a tomato with arms and legs. She made the bright red outfit, complete with a red visor with green stem. The minister even wore dangling tomato earrings made by Unity’s Crafty Sew-n-So’s Club, which sold them for $2 a pair.
Hemrick, who has been at the church for 21/2 years, said she commented on her interview for the job that she couldn’t believe the congregation’s tomato farmers weren’t already doing an annual festival.
There had been two back in the 1980s, Patti Safrit said, but after the third one was rained out, they didn’t have anymore.
With Hemrick’s encouragement, Unity members held the first new, improved Woodleaf Tomato Festival last year, raising nearly $5,000 for the building fund.
Her tomato costume raised a few eyebrows when she debuted it last year. One woman told her, “You’re the only minister I know who would have the nerve to do that.”
Hemrick’s mother, Velma Lene, 77, drove from Stokes County to attend again this year, and her daughter, Clara Marie Hemrick, brought two friends and their children from High Point. Clara Marie told them, “I know it feels like we’re driving a long way, but it’s worth it to see my mother in a tomato costume.”This year’s festival featured even more attractions. About 40 runners, for example, participated in the first 5K Tomato Trot organized by Unity member Mallory Hodge.
Competitions and entertainment were held throughout the day, including a parade, the crowning of “Little Miss Mater,” “Little Tommy Toe” and the “Woodleaf Tomato Queen,” children’s stories, a recipe cooking contest and performances by several bands and musical groups.
Mahaley Mays earned the title of Little Miss Mater. Her great-grandmother, Julia Wetmore, who was helping prepare tomato sandwiches to sell for $1 apiece, said she was up until 1:30 Saturday morning making her tomato outfit.
Austin Moore was crowned Little Tommy Toe, and David Correll aka “Brandywine” earned the title of Woodleaf Tomato Queen by raising more than $700 for the church building fund.
“Brandywine” sashayed across the stage in a blonde wig, short denim skirt and a pink floral shirt that exposed part of his belly. The most difficult part of helping to get him ready, according to his wife, Cheryl, was the women’s undergarments.
In accepting the crown from reigning queen, Carl “Carlotta” Moore, Correll said, “Tomatoes are my life, so it’s only fitting that today I am a tomato queen.”
In all, Unity Presbyterian Church members raised more than $6,5000 for their building fund Saturday.
Covering the Woodleaf Tomato Festival was the most fun I’ve had in weeks. I can’t wait to go back again next year.