Woodleaf Tomato Festival: 10 years and counting

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Special to the Salisbury Post

WOODLEAF — There have been at least 3,000 tomato sandwiches. That means 2,000 Woodleaf tomatoes, and at least 25 gallons of Duke’s mayonnaise.

That’s the unofficial count of the number of sandwiches made and devoured over almost a decade of Woodleaf Tomato Festivals. This week in Woodleaf, they’re getting ready for the 10th annual festival, to be held Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the grounds of Unity Presbyterian Church, 885 Woodleaf-Barber Road.

Those numbers are not counting tomatoes used in the tomato-eating contest, the tomato cook-off contest, and tomatoes for the making of “Tomuffles,” chocolate tomato truffles with sea salt, that are surprisingly good.

But who’s counting tomatoes? The beauty of the festival, including the election of the Woodleaf mayor, is about as unofficial as you can get. That’s the nature of the laid-back Tomato Festival. It’s just a summer Saturday to greet old friends, make new ones, talk about the history of tomato farms in the Woodleaf area, and support church and community. This year, festival-goers can donate school items for students in need at special boxes placed on the church grounds.

Everyone in the South, especially in Woodleaf, knows that a tomato sandwich is made of slices of juicy, meaty, home-grown tomatoes, salt, pepper, and Duke’s mayo on white bread.

There are T-shirts attesting to that fact and plenty of tomato-sandwich lovers to say, “Amen!”

For the 10th anniversary festival, there will be free cake and cupcakes, decorated in true tomato fashion, served at noon. The cupcakes are part of the first Cupcake Challenge, with the winner judged on the cupcake that best portrays the Tomato Festival. Past pageant winners and parade grand marshals will be recognized from the stage.

Woodleaf, an unincorporated community in northwest Rowan County with no official town government, and western Rowan County are the center of tomato farming in Rowan County. The festival, a fundraiser for the church with proceeds going to support the church’s youth program and local charities, is held at Unity on the third Saturday of August each year, promoting farming and the history of tomato growing in the area.

To be chosen “mayor” of Woodleaf, contestants will ask for money, instead of votes, during the festival. They will make promises that they have no intention of keeping. The contestant with the most money to contribute to the fundraising effort at the end of the contest will become the community’s mayor, participating in next year’s parade but otherwise having no official or unofficial duties other than to promote tomatoes. Contestants do not have to be residents of Woodleaf to participate and can begin their “campaigns” prior to the festival.

Tomato events include the 10 a.m. parade from the Woodleaf Volunteer Fire Department to the church with tractors, antique cars and the Tomato Festival King and Queen, the traditional tomato-eating contest, the tomato-tasting contest to choose the favorite tomato of the festival, the biggest tomato contest, the favorite tomato contest, and the best tomato cook-off recipe. Children may enter Little Miss ’Mater, Little Tommy Toe, Little ’Mater Sprout and Miss Tomato Festival contests.

The festival is a free, family focused, all-day event with live music on stage, games and contests for kids, including a bouncy house; a Tomato Hole tournament (think corn hole); train rides for kids, a silent auction, bake sales, booths with ice cream, salsa, and ham biscuits and hot sandwiches by College Barbecue in Salisbury.

Fresh vegetables and fruits from nearby farms are always a big hit. Craftsmen, including potters, a blacksmith, a wood carver and others, will demonstrate their work.

Woodleaf’s “Home Grown da’Maters” dance team performs, works the crowd, and puts everyone in the spirit of “all things tomato.” Festival-goers wear tomato shirts and tomato hats, turning the church yard into a sea of red.

The “Big Tomato,” a giant 10-foot inflatable tomato donated to the festival by Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten, will be on site. The “Big Tomato” is also used for the church’s New Year’s Eve Tomato Drop.

Parade participants should be at the fire department at 9:30 a.m. Festival-goers will vote for their favorite entry this year.

Farmers have been growing tomatoes in the fertile soil in Woodleaf since around 1900, when a one-horse wagon was used to take the crop to market in nearby towns. They called the soil “brown sugar,” and the farms built a reputation for good-tasting tomatoes.

When the community still had a depot, tomatoes were loaded onto refrigerated rail cars and shipped to Northern cities. Today, the crops are trucked to Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Greensboro, Roanoke, Lynchburg and other locations. Produce stands in some of these places post signs that read: “We Have Woodleaf Tomatoes!”

Many of the tomato farm families, now fourth-generation, are members of Unity Church.