How has the Yamboree survived for 75 years (it started in 1935, but missed three World War II years) when so many other small-town festivals have come and gone?
My short answer is, it started big and stayed that way.
The more complex explanation would have to be a tribute to the spirit of volunteerism that brings together in good will people from all walks of life who take on duties that often amount to an extra job.
A MIRROR story in 1968 looked back under the headline, “Gilmer’s image tied up with Yamboree:” It reads “the Yamboree started as an agricultural show to celebrate the fact that this East Texas area had finally become free of sweet otato weevils, and the State Department of Agriculure had lifted the quarantine on shipping Upshur County yams.
”Bill Seals, then County Agent, suggested to John Brogoitti that they have some sort of show or program to celerate the event. Mr. Brogoitti, then Chamber of Commerce manager, agreed, but visualized something bigger and far more important than just a local celebration. His idea was to start something that could become an annual event, and in this manner the Yamboree came into being.
“A Boy Scout Jamboree was in progress in Washington, D.C. and Joe Cooper, a public relations man from Dallas suggested the name Yamboree . . .
“The organizers thought big from the first year, and even in 1935 the program incuded a luncheon for distinguished guests which later developed into the annual All-Service Club Luncheon, a parade, a pageant, yam pie contest, football game, a poultry and Jersey show.
“Innovations added to other early shows were the now famous and popular Old Fiddlers contest, street dances and barn dance. A school parade was added about 1939 or 1940.”
THE STORY GOES on to notice a few early setbacks:
“The one error local folks never forget is that the Queen [Jane Tuttle] was left out of the first parade. The float contractor failed to finsh the float and deliver it to the Ward School. Inexperienced committee workers forgot to check before they started the parade, and so the Queen was left behind. But never has another parade starting whistle blown without first checking that the Queen was on her float and ready to ride.
“The second Yamboree was almost rained out; the Queen [Marjorie Coe] had to ride holding an umbrella. In 1937, the exhibit tent with many of the Yam exhibits already in place burned to the ground, but by opening hour next day another tent was here and more yams ready for judging.”
You can find out about old as well as the newer events (Antique Classic Car Show,Photography Contest, Quilt Show, Art Shows, Tater Trot, among others) on the Yamboree web page, www.yamboree.com.
The 2010 Yamboree president, Judge Dean Fowler, sums up well on his page: “The Yamboree is just wonderful. It is a remarkable and unique celebration of family, friends and community.”
OVER IN CAJUN country, at Opelousas, La., the 65th annual Yambilee will be held the first weekend in October. It, too, has a colorful website, www.yambilee.com.
The official Yambilee song is played, inviting all to come down to “a real hoedown in Tater Town” and including these lines, “Old and young join in the fun, come and get your portion, it’s a real commotion at the Louisiana Yambilee.”
The queen is crowned at the Yamatorium, located on the Festival grounds. There is also a king, who last year was crowned in a Sunday ceremony at a local Catholic Church.
The web page explains that the yam “has been something to celebrate ever since the Frenchmen, who established the first settlement here in 1760, discovered the native Indians eating sweet potatoes. Already tested by the Attakapas, Alabama, Choctaw, and Opelousas Tribes, the tasty nourishing sweet potato became the favorite food item of the French and Spanish settlers, who in 1765, established a trading post near Opelousas. Thus the Indians, French, Spanish and Acadians, who later migrated from Canada, devoted their efforts to making the ‘golden yam’ a prime crop.”
The Yambilee normally begins on the first Thursday before the first full weekend in October and runs through Sunday. The web page hasn’t been updated to list the 2010 events, and, considering south Louisiana’s problems these days, I can only wish them well and hope that the 2010 festival is ready to roll.