When I think of summer a lot of things come to mind – vacations, pool time, cicadas (or I as call them – July flies), and of course… tomato sandwiches.
My family will tell anyone that wants to listen that when I was growing up, I refused to eat a tomato. I’m from the Down East part of North Carolina and tomatoes are every where and served with every meal. I would not touch them! However, when I was pregnant with my son, I ordered a hamburger with no tomato at a fast food restaurant and as fate would have it, they didn’t get my order right. There on my burger was a big slice of tomato. Funny thing was I didn’t know it until I had taken a bite. I have never eaten a burger without a tomato since! It was then I fell in love with the beautiful fruit of the summer!
Woodleaf Tomato Festival
I was thrilled to learn that Woodleaf, NC celebrates tomatoes every year during the Woodleaf Tomato Festival. They will be celebrating their 14th year on Saturday, August 17! I began asking a few people about the festival and I was directed to get in touch with Libby Watson. Libby was kind enough to let me come out to Wetmore Farms one Saturday and she filled me in on the history of the festival.
When Libby was a little girl, they use to have a tomato festival at Woodleaf Elementary, now West Rowan Elementary. As time passed the festival did as well. Fast forward a few years when Unity Presbyterian Church of Woodleaf, NC wanted to host a fundraiser to raise money for a fellowship hall. They decided to have a tomato festival to raise money. Little did they know then what they were starting! Not only were they able to raise enough money for that fellowship hall, but they started a tradition in Woodleaf that has grown to be covered in Our State Magazine. Check out the feature in the July 2019 issue here. Now that is quite an accomplishment!
Libby took me down to Unity Presbyterian Church to show me the set up for the festival which is Saturday, August 17 from 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
The day kicks off with a parade and your child can be take part in it! The Tomato Festival organizers welcome children to walk or ride their bikes in the parade this year. If your child wishes to walk in the parade, please meet at the Woodleaf Volunteer Fire Department by 9:30 a.m. the morning of the festival.
Contests will include Little Miss ‘Mater, Little ‘Mater Sprout, and Little Tommy Toe!
I spoke recently to Karen Biernacki, a western Rowan resident and a local attorney about the festival. She said, “The tomato festival is a wholesome, family event!” She also added that it will be “the hottest day in August” and “well that just comes with tomato season”!
Libby along with co-founder, Pattie Safrit (who now lives out of town), organize this event every year. This year, you can expect over 36 vendors along with music from Divided by Four, The Trailblazers, and Melvis (Rowan County’s own Elvis impersonator… steady yourselves ladies)! Other festivities include a silent auction, attic sale, and scavenger hunt.
‘Mater Sandwich – A Southern Staple
I decided it was time to get serious with Libby about this event and ask her the burning question. “Libby, will there be tomato sandwiches?!” Libby laughed and told me “I’ll have a huge container of Duke’s Mayonnaise, ripe tomatoes, and lots of black pepper!” I also asked about the salt, because I love salt on my sandwiches, and she said, “there will be salt too”.
Though I haven’t met many folks who don’t love a ‘mater sandwich, if it’s not your thing, you can grab a hot dog or hamburger sold by West Rowan FFA. Satisfy your sweet tooth with ice cream or Italian ice.
Organizers are expecting over 1,000 people to attend the event this year. Parking will be in a field down from the church. Funds raised from this event help fund mission trips for the youth of the church and are also given to local charities such as the Rowan County Helping Ministries and the Family Crisis Council of Rowan County. Unity Presbyterian Church is located at 885 Woodleaf Barber Road, Cleveland, NC 27103. Call them at 704-278-4248 for more information or check out their Facebook Event Page here.
A Family Tradition
Once Libby arrived back at Wetmore Farms, I had a lot more questions about the area. Before Libby married Artie Watson, she was a Wetmore. She recently found out that her children, Laura Watson and Jacob Watson, are the sixth generation of Wetmores to work on the farm. They employee 17 people and hire high school kids over the summer on the farm and in the store. Their tomatoes are grown locally and shipped around North Carolina and Virginia for sale. “We have tomatoes for sale until October,” Libby explained.
The festival involves three families in the Woodleaf area: The Wetmores, The Corrells, and the Flemings. All three of these families live in the western part of Rowan County and attend Unity Presbyterian Church. They work hard every year to organize and execute this festival that has become a tradition for many local families.
I was fortunate to speak with Sam Correll of Correll Farm in Cleveland, NC. Correll Farm currently has about 30 acres of vegetables and 150 acres of soybeans/field corn. A variety of vegetables grown include cantaloupes, carrots, beets, spinach, peppers, squash, corn, and of course the ruby red jewel, the tomato. To my surprise, Sam shared, “I don’t like raw tomatoes. Once they get cooked in a sauce or in ketchup, then I like them.”
Farm Land History
Tomato history runs deep in Woodleaf. History shows that the land, now Martin Marietta Quarry, was originally farmed by Hubbard and Radford Bailey. “There was some really great soil” where the quarry now sits explains Artie. This is where the Bailey brothers harvested their first crop of tomatoes. They used to take them on a one-horse wagon and sell them in Statesville at a market.
Sons of Radford Bailey, Hugh and Ira, helped to grow the family business. They were featured in a 1938 newspaper article where they developed the only “on-their-own” irrigation system at the time in Rowan County using pond water on the farm. They also had heated plant beds so that lettuce and tomatoes could be started early then be transplanted later to the fields. These plant beds were heated by steam pipes running under, above, and around the beds. The Bailey’s constructed a furnace to produce the steam. In additions to these innovative ideas, the two brothers expanded the business even further when they began delivering produce to grocery stores in the Piedmont and Carolina food markets.
To bring the history full circle, Martin Marietta is a sponsor of the festival and a huge community supporter of Woodleaf.
The Event of the Summer
The Woodleaf Tomato Festival is an event everyone in Woodleaf and surrounding communities looks forward to every year! It may just look like a bunch of people eating ‘mater sandwiches to outsiders, but to locals, it is so much more. It’s a way to honor and reflect on those that planted and sold produce well before them. Things have changed a lot since the first tomato was grown in the western part of our county, and the residents there have changed along with it. However, one thing that hasn’t changed is their love for each other, their love of their land, and their love for tomatoes!
I am so excited to be able to attend the festival this year as a Your Rowan Connector. Please come see me and if I sneak away from the booth, chances are good you will be able to find me at the tomato sandwich stand!