TERRE HAUTE —
Kelsey Witte and Ashleigh Adams have a lot in common: their husbands work together, both have two kids, both lived in Alaska and both enjoyed a healthy serving of “The Works” at Thursday’s Strawberry Fest in the First Congregational Church’s parking lot along Ohio Street.
“I’ve heard that it’s sort of a must-do in Terre Haute,” said Witte, adding that she was not able to attend last year’s Strawberry Fest because she got there too late. This year, she made sure to leave her house in Marshall, Ill., early to enjoy the fest when it opened at 10 a.m.
And she brought some company. She held her 10-month-old daughter, Kate, on a baby carrier as she kept an eye on Kate’s older sister, 3-year-old Anna.
“It’s a fun thing for the kids to be involved in as well,” Witte said.
Witte and Adams traveled a distance to get a taste of one unique area festival.
“We don’t have a Strawberry Fest in Alaska, so I was excited,” Adams said as she finished her strawberries and ice cream while watching her children, Mileigh and Andrew.
It may have been Witte’s first year for Strawberry Fest, but the event has been serving strawberries, ice cream, biscuits and whipped cream for 25 years in what is one of downtown Terre Haute’s largest one-day events. It is an annual fundraiser organized by the First Congregational Church made possible by 150 volunteers, who dish up 6,900 pounds of strawberries and spend almost a half year planning.
“It is a massive coordination effort,” First Congregational Church’s minister, the Rev. Dawn Carlson, said.
Area groups and businesses also help every year, Carlson added.
Even volunteers make it a family event.
A longtime volunteer, Caitlin Spier, said she started facepainting with her mom at Strawberry Fest when she was 10 years old.
The 17-year-old said she has volunteered year after year because “it helps keep my church alive, which I’m always grateful for.”
“I like being able to see people … and help them have a good time,” Spier added.
Another volunteer who wants to help her church is Cameroon-native Murielle Mbo. She has been volunteering for five years and was assigned to serve strawberries this year.
“It’s fun,” she said, because she gets to enjoy the event with her little sister.
While some have already established an annual family tradition of volunteering for the fest, others are just beginning.
Jean Ho, a first-time volunteer, said she was enjoying herself even as a server. And her schedule worked out.
“Today happened to be my day off,” she said.
Strawberry Fest was born when four church members brought the idea to Terre Haute after seeing a similar festival at an Indianapolis church.
One of the members, Libby Gelder, recounts her trip to Indianapolis with Carrie Werneke, Martha Ehrenhart and Dorothy Monroe. The 92-year-old said they immediately realized the event’s potential after seeing 50 people in line for the festival amidst the pouring rain.
They helped organize the first Strawberry Fest in 1989 where they served about 2,000 people, according to a church flier.
Since then, Strawberry Fest has attracted as many as 10,000 people annually.
“Our goal is to complete and enjoy 10,000 strawberry shortcakes,” Carlson said.
For 10 years, the price for the “The Works” strawberry shortcakes has remained $5.
Carlson said they keep the cost down by working with area food distributors and “order exactly what we need.” In addition to the strawberries, the church had 660 gallons of ice cream and 9,500 biscuits for the fest.
Proceeds are being used to “help keep the lights on” for groups that regularly meet in the church such as Meals-on-Wheels, Carlson said.
Over the years, Strawberry Fest has become the event that kicks off the summer season in Terre Haute. It has also become a family day out.
“You have people bringing their children who first came when they were little. Their parents or grandparents brought them,” Carlson said.
“After 25 years, it becomes a family tradition as well as a downtown tradition,” she added.
Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or email@example.com