The annual United Methodist Church Women's Strawberry Festival has one of the more intriguing island histories.
Few could have foreseen it growing into the magnitude event it has become during its inception about 20 years ago when a dozen members of the United Methodist Women of the Boca Grande Methodist Church organized a simple rummage sale.
Ice cream was the first featured item of choice until dipping the hard, frozen confection became too difficult for the ladies to manage. But they came up with the masterstroke: strawberry shortcakes.
Strawberry Festival presidents past, present and future, from left: Future President Kathi Hustedt, past President Beth Paxton and present President Sara Moll.
Thus, the Strawberry Festival was born.
"It was a simple event, fun and sociable, a perfect fund-raiser combining bargains and strawberry shortcakes," said Blanche Johnson, program publicist.
As years went on, the Bargain Sale evolved with organizers discouraging used clothing and adding furniture.
Strawberry Fest auction items
1) Paintings by Arlene Thompson, Carolyn Humke, Wini Smart, Jane Carlson, Melinda Thies, Marlene Cox, Ellie Crawford, Anita Shoemaker and Suz Eddy
2) Babcock Ranch Tour
3) Courtyard Hair and James Griffin Salon baskets
4) Barbara Hughes necklace and earrings
5) Family photo by Heidi Marie
6) Susan Hanafee-authored family history
7) Golf packages from Lemon Bay, Coral Creek and Heron Creek
8) Dinners: Tim Dumas gumbo for eight, Julia Childs French for eight, Boca Grande Club for six, Boca Bay Pass Club for four, Patrick's Thai Bistro
9) Baseball tickets
10) Two cases of wine by Terry Seitz, Dazzling and Drinkable Digs wines
11) Half-day fishing trip with Capt. Doug Stewart, boat trips
12) Bronze and glass table
13) Three-night stay for four at Chicago penthouse with riverboat cruise
14) Scavenger hunt for eight children, Jewelry Dig for adults and children
15) Needle point belt
16) Department 56 Christmas in the City series
17) Tennis lessons
18) Father Christmas
Strawberry Fest leaders
Co-Chairs: Sara Moll, Beth Paxton, Kathi Hustedt
Treasurer: Barbara Greene
Strawberry Shortcake: Kay Billman, Jan Myers, Judy Sandbo
Bake sale: Bebe Wesselman
Bargain Sale: Dian Klepser, Jane Caple
Boutique: Nancy Lyons
Community Outreach: Marilyn Witt
Dazzling Digs: Marjorie Moore, Judy Thomas
Furniture: Lindy Hustedt, Richard Klepser
Grilled Food and Drinks: Ed Paxton
Publicity: Blanche Johnson
Set-up/Tear-down: Curt Moll/Martin Lyons
Silent Auction: Gloria Mitchell, Madelaine McCrady
Volunteer Coordinators: Candy Rost, Joan Senior
What: 2012 Strawberry Festival
Who: Ladies of the Boca Grande United Methodist Church
When: 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 3
Where: Crowninshield House and Boca Grande Community center grounds
For more info: Call Blanche Johnson, 964-0697
The event grew year by year as the men started grilling hotdogs and continuing to provide the heavy lifting during set-up and cleanup.
In the early years, profits were modest around $1,000. The bake sale added to coffers so a $2,000 annual profit was not unusual. The Strawberry Festival raised more than $75,000 for charity in 2010, according to Strawberry Fest officials.
The event was held in the church's Fellowship Hall until 2005, with folks spilling out on the tiny church lawn to eat berries and shortcakes under big, old mahogany trees.
During church building renovations, the event moved to the Crowninshield House where it will be held for the eighth consecutive year starting at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, March 3 at Second and Railroad.
This became the perfect venue with its many bargain sale tables, the Bake Sale and Boutique Shoppe, featuring finer items for more-than-rummage-sale prices.
The kitchen is large enough to manage the mechanics of Strawberry Shortcake sales. The outdoor men's grill and auction tent offers art, furniture, boat trips, fishing guides or a weekend at a private retreat for bid.
What was once simply a rummage sale became a major fund-raiser for many Methodist charities with an emphasis on helping children and women. The Methodist Women have sent children to camp, supported the Christian Children's Fund in Africa and India, bought bicycles for children and supported children's homes in Florida as well as specific missionaries in Cuba, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. They have not forgotten the working poor in their own backyard in neighboring Lee and Charlotte counties, including Catholic Charities in Arcadia, For the Love of Kids, the Homeless Coalition, and the Jim Russo Prison Mission program, which for years supplied Christmas gifts for children of men and women prisoners.
Boca Grande is on the list as well with support for the children's acting program, Community Center children's programs, the Boca Grande Child Care Center and the Children's Room at the Fust Library.
"This once-simple funds-raiser remains based on fellowship," said Blanche John, Strawberry Festival publicist. "Through the years, the emphasis has been on meeting new people and working together. While the Methodist Women sponsor, guide and organize this annual event, people from all over the island join them, all joining in labor and love and gaining in friendships and fellowship."
Some slight adjustments have been made this year to the Strawberry Festival. The bake sale will feature favorite recipes and goodies of all flavors instead of exclusively strawberry recipes, said Johnson.
The "Dazzling Dig" for jewelry buried in sand is back for a second year, and dozens of valuable items will be offered to bidders at the popular silent auction.
The Boutique shop will offer new and cared-for merchandise. Other attractions include the UMC Ladies Bake Sale, which always sells out quickly.
Proceeds benefit the following charities, a reduction from 21 a year ago:
2012 Strawberry Festival charities
Boca Grande United Methodist Church Youth Programs
Boca Grande Child Care Center
Boca Grande Samaritan Fund
Friends of the Community Center children's programs
Arcadia After School Program
For the Love of Kids in Port Charlotte
Grace Place Mission for Children and Families
Kids Needs of Greater Englewood
Dominican Republic - Los Rieles
ECHO in Fort Myers
Hope for Haitians