Annual festival in Chassell is oldest continuous celebration in state, now in 70th year

By Deborah Frontiera
This year, the Chassell Lions Club’s Strawberry Festival will celebrate 70 years, the longest continuously-running festival in the state according to a Detroit Free Press article in 2001. The first festival was held in 1949 to celebrate local strawberry growers. As an indication of how important strawberries were to the state’s economy, then Governor G. Mennen Williams crowned the first strawberry queen, Lucille Tormala.
Since its inception, the festival has been sponsored by the Chassell Lions. All proceeds have benefited the group’s charitable work. Locally, Lions provide funding and volunteer work for several community projects: five free library boxes, improvements to Centennial Park and donations to the local historical association, among others.
Internationally, Lions have “feet on the ground” in several nations, where they help during disasters and with those communities’ needs. Lions have also funded projects for the blind, especially the Leader Dog Program. Not only do people who come to the Strawberry Festival have fun and eat lots of goodies, the dollars they spend pay dividends in the local community and beyond.
Lois Berg has been involved with the Chassell Lions for the last 10 years. She is currently the Public Relations and Publicity person. She emphasized that all the strawberries sold and eaten at the festival are locally grown. There is a huge community gathering on the Thursday before each festival. The queen candidates, high school students, the Lions, church groups . . . around 200 people work to clean 1,400 quarts of berries.
Thousands attend the festival. People from all over the country plan their vacations around each year’s dates—always the weekend after the 4th of July. If you arrive right after the Saturday parade, you can expect a long line for shortcake, so be prepared to wait as long as 40 minutes. Plan to come early or arrive late, but not too late. In 2017, they ran out of cake around 3 p.m. and just sold berries. That was in spite of preparing 3,500 cakes! Crowd size often depends on the weather. Organizers are generally blessed with good weather, but they have been rained out some years.

Lois reported that more vendors than ever have signed up this year. She also emphasized that the Chassell Lions have been actively recruiting younger people, since many current members are getting older. Young people shadow experienced members to learn the tasks those folks have done for years.
An important part of the fundraising takes place along with the crowning of the queen on Friday evening. An auction in which everything sold is made by Lions members from those locally-grown strawberries, including crates of the growers’ very best, jams and jellies, cakes, pies and chocolate-coated berries. A plate of those chocolate-coated berries once sold for $400. Queen candidates carry each item around the room to show it off before the bidding commences.

“I stay because I like the people I work with,” Lois said. “I love sharing our strawberry culture with all the people that come to the festival.  It’s a happy time and the shortcakes are delicious. The festival is truly a community event bringing people together. We laugh, share stories, and many hands make light work. In the end when we are all tired, it’s a good feeling to know we passed along our culture for one more year.”

It’s definitely a family event. When some vendors wanted to serve alcohol, the Lions said no. If you do want a drink, there are places in town. Alcohol is just not sold on festival grounds.
This year’s schedule includes plenty of strawberry shortcake, available Friday, July 6, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Plenty of other foods are available, too. There’s a fish boil beginning at 4 p.m. on Friday, breakfast items by the Chassell High School Seniors from 7-10 a.m. on Saturday, and a chicken barbecue on Saturday after the parade, which begins at 11 a.m. A host of other activities takes place as well: arts and crafts exhibits and sales, a children’s parade Friday, the Strawberry Queen contest at 7 p.m. followed with a dance from 9 to midnight, also on Friday.
Al Eckhart has been involved in the festival since 1998, starting with garbage pickup and making shortcake. Later, he coordinated the craft fair but has passed on that torch after 15 years. “It’s the satisfaction, knowing that you are working with a great organization, accomplishing meaningful things. I also enjoyed meeting so many gifted crafters. It’s a very satisfying experience to have a role in accomplishing the Lions’ mission,” he stated.

Judy Evert is another long-time member. She and her husband have been involved in the festival since 1999.  “The Chassell Lions is the very first organization Nick and I joined when we retired. I was born and raised in Chassell, as were both of my parents, all of my siblings, and both sets of grandparents.  I remembered how much Lions did for the community when we were growing up. My father’s sisters, my two older sisters and I and a younger brother all picked strawberries in the summer to earn money for school clothes in the fall,” she recalled. She also remembered looking forward to the festival every summer. Even when she moved away during adulthood, she and her sister would return every summer on vacation.

“Being able to come back to Chassell to live and to be a part of the Chassell Lions Club fulfilled a long-time dream, and it makes my heart full of pride to be able to give back to not only our Chassell Lions but also to our beautiful community and to carry on the long-time tradition,” she said.

“Most important,” Judy emphasized, “is the commitment felt and shared by all, the working together with each doing their share, the friendship and partnership, the respect and admiration for each other.  This cannot be taught, but is learned by being involved with this fine group of both women and men.”

Everyone is invited to come out and join the fun: July 6-7. For complete information on scheduled activities, check out:

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