About 5,000 people turned out for the Central Florida Peanut Festival in Williston earlier this month.
Festivalgoers celebrate one of the town’s main crops, crown a King and Queen and pig out on peanuts.
Beyond honoring the harvest of the peanut, the festival serves a crucial financial role.
“It is the biggest fundraiser that we do for the chamber,” said Carolyn TenBroeck, the executive director of the Williston Chamber of Commerce. Many of the people responsible for creating the festival 33 years ago were involved in the peanut industry, she said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Peanut Festival drew crowds of between 8,000 and 10,000 people, almost doubling the town’s population of about 5,000, TenBroeck said.
The festival was founded by the Williston Woman’s Club to celebrate the peanut harvest.
Peanuts are a major crop in Williston and remain an important part of the predominantly agricultural economy, along with watermelon and cattle.
The festival grew too big for the Woman’s Club, so it was eventually handed off to the Chamber of Commerce.
The festival has evolved over the years, but one constant is the Peanut Pageants.
This year, the Peanut Pageants named Ava Oliver and Pedro Perez Baby Peanut Queen and Baby Peanut King, respectively. Braxton Barker was crowned Peanut King and Calli Hernandez became the new Peanut Queen.
“I know it’s cheesy, but it’s my favorite day of the year,” said Tricia Willis, Little Miss Peanut Queen 1991, and a member of Williston’s founding family.
Contestants for Baby Peanut King and Queen, ages 6 and younger, and Little Peanut King and Queen undergo a series of interviews in which they answer questions such as “What is your favorite food?” and “What is your favorite TV show?”
“It’s bragging rights,” TenBroeck said, “We have people who are now 30 who brag that they were little Miss Peanut back in 1990.”
Willis reflected on the day, 30 years ago, when she was just 3, she won the Peanut Queen title. She and the Peanut King rode on an elephant and were honored in the parade.
“I do not think I have missed a Peanut Festival since 1991,” she said.
Willis said the festival means a lot to the area.
“It’s something people look forward to,” she said, “It brings the community together.”
As far as any ambitions she may have had of claiming a prize at this year’s festival, Willis said she had some hopes, but they ultimately didn’t pan out.
“There’s a peanut shelling contest this year,” she said, “I wanted to be in that, but all of our local peanuts have already been picked, and I didn’t want to use a store-bought peanut, so I did not participate.”
For peanut farmers in Williston, the festivities of the day play second fiddle to more pressing matters. The festival usually falls during the busy peanut harvest season.
Andy Robinson, the co-owner of Williston Peanuts, Inc., the festival’s biggest sponsor, said he can’t always make it to the event.
“When harvest season is running, if the sun’s shining, we’ve got to get it done,” Robinson said.
When he does make it, Robinson said he helps work the Williston Peanut booth and grill up the free, grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches given out the day of the festival.
“It’s funny,” Robinson said. “Someone saw the commercial about the Peanut Festival on channel 20 the other day, and it had a picture of me from two years ago when I was cooking the sandwiches on the griddle.”
The grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches may be the only thing the town loves more than the peanut itself.
“I thought it was so gross when I first came to Williston until I sampled one,” said TenBroeck. “It is to die for.”
Willis echoed the sentiment.
“If you have not had Williston Peanuts’ peanut butter, it is unlike any other peanut butter you will taste in your life. It’s the absolute best,” she said.
Robinson said he eats a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, as that’s often all he has time to eat during a workday on the farm, and it fits nicely in the console of his truck.
“I like peanut butter,” he said, “But that grilled peanut butter and jelly, that’s special.”
Dedicated to the craft of perfecting the peanut, Williston has gained national recognition for its product. Willis attended the National Peanut Festival in Alabama, where one vendor commented on how great Williston’s peanuts are.
“It’s super cool for our little town to be known for something so big,” she said.
Robinson said Williston is usually the first in the country to grade peanuts each year, which is when harvested peanuts are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The festival was held Oct. 15 in Williston’s Heritage Park. Live entertainment from Butch Batts and the South Bound Band and a performance by the Mustang Cloggers set the sound for the day. A 5K run preceded the festival, with all funds donated to eradicate polio.
Despite all the fanfare, Robinson said the event is ultimately focused on one thing.
“It’s more about peanuts. We wanted to make sure it was actually about peanuts,” he said.