What began as a fundraiser for the volunteer fire department three decades ago is now one of the Windsor community’s favorite events of the year, and it’s all thanks to a humble squash.
The Windsor Zucchini Festival will mark its 35th anniversary on May 11, welcoming visitors to see – and taste – what the Zucchini Capital of Florida has to offer.
It all started on the balcony of the old Windsor post office, which Alachua County Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson happened to own in 1981. As he and his friends were enjoying happy hour, truckloads of zucchinis drove by.
“After the third truck went by, someone said, ‘This must be the zucchini capital of the world!’” Hutchinson said, “And we got to talking about having a zucchini festival because we had been thinking of ways to raise money for the fire department.”
The Windsor Volunteer Fire Department had built a 60-by-100 square-foot metal building that served as its station, giving volunteers a place to meet and store the firetruck. With only a handful of volunteer firefighters, they couldn’t pay for the building alone.
With the help of Windsor Fire Chief Jim Arnette and community leader Bobbie Jean Walton, Hutchinson started stuffing Windsor zucchini-grams in mailboxes.
“It was a newsletter that laid the somewhat humorous notion that zucchinis were always a part of our history,” Hutchinson said. “We stapled some zucchini seeds in a plastic baggy, and that’s all it took.”
Windsor residents came forward with ideas to include a zucchini poetry contest, a fun run, annual T-shirts and a zucchini pageant crowning the “Duke of Zukes” and “Zu-queeni.”
“Boy, did people have a good time. We had all kinds of silly events,” Hutchinson said.
Picture a men’s legs contest, in which the upper part of the contestants’ bodies were covered but their legs were still exposed; women had to guess which pair of legs belonged to their husband. Or the ugliest zucchini contest, for which the winner was a dirty shoe found in the woods and painted like a zucchini.
“The first year, we made $8,000,” said Arnette, now the fire chief emeritus. “Compare that to the $5,000 we were given from the county each year.”
It took eight years to pay off the $16,000 building. After the payments were made, Hutchinson said morale got low, and for three years the festival didn’t happen.
“When I asked (Walton) why, she said, ‘The year we didn’t have zucchini people, folks were siccin’ the law on each others’ kids and dogs,’” Hutchinson said, “which was her way of saying that the Zucchini Festival is what created a sense of community and enabled them to solve their own problems.”
So instead of calling and asking people to help, Walton ordered people to help; and they did.
In recent years, the Zucchini Festival has offered fun for all ages. In addition to 100 vendors featuring zucchini-inspired foods and crafts, there’s a zucchini carving contest, a sand pile coin hunt, live music, a Cook-a-Zuke contest, raffle giveaways, a plant sale, pony rides, and much more.
Although the cost of a ticket includes a meal from Hill’s Barbecue & Catering, the festival’s money-maker is its fried zucchini.
“People line up all day for our fried zucchini,” said Zucchini Festival Chairwoman Cindy Kruger. “We cook about 33 cases of zucchini.”
Kruger, 68, said the event is entirely volunteer-run, and this year they’ll need extra help due to a lack of funding from Visit Gainesville.
“Last year, they were generous and we got a ton of money. This year, we got none,” she said. “The county did give some money to some of the venues, but they’re all multi-day events. We’re a one-day event.”
Regardless of the festival’s size and attendance, there’s one thing that never falls short of praise: the food.
“All the food that is cooked is fresh and made that morning,” Kruger said. “The zucchini cornbread is more like cake than cornbread. It’s marvelous.”
Vendors make their own variations of zucchini salsa, zucchini powder mix and even zucchini ice cream.
“It is the best food. That’s never wavered,” Hutchinson said. “The guys that do the cooking take it very seriously. It’s good country cooking.”
In total, Arnette said the money from each Zucchini Festival has paid for the fire department’s building, two fire engines, firefighter equipment, insurance, a tanker and any community-based needs like building wells for water access.
Although the county has significantly increased the fire department’s funding in the past 10 years, Arnette said the Zucchini Festival is still important to them.
“The county gives us $260,000 a year now, but that goes to salary and diesel gasoline,” Arnette said. “If we have to fix the building, the engines, that’s where the Zucchini Festival comes in.”
Hutchinson said it’s more than just the Zucchini Festival that supports the fire department.
“You can’t find places anymore that have this go-along, get-along attitude where people watch out for one another,” Hutchinson said. “To me, the finest thing about Windsor is the people out there taking care of others.”
Today, Arnette and Hutchinson are loosely involved with planning the festival, and they said they’ll attend every year they can.