Salad Days

The 31st Dania Beach Tomato Festival

Two musicals -- Sophie: The Red Hot Mama Revusical in West Palm Beach and Sophie, Totie & Belle in Deerfield Beach -- celebrate the life and flamboyant times of legendary blues singer Sophie Tucker. What you won't find reference to in either show is Tucker's appearance in Dania during the '40s to judge the Tomato Queen Pageant. Slugger Babe Ruth also dropped in to crown the queen at the annual Tomato Festival, first held in 1927 in honor of the tomato harvest.

That's right. Florida is known far and wide as a citrus-growing mecca, but there was a time when tomatoes ruled the produce roost in these parts. The yield of succulent toms was so plentiful that Dania was known as the "Tomato Capital of the World," and that reputation once attracted the attention of Life magazine, which took pictures of the tomato fights at the fest. Usually, high-school students would chuck overripe tomatoes at each other while wearing bathing suits. But Life staffers asked them to wear white shirts and shorts so that the red stains would show up better.

From the '20s through most of the '40s, Dania was the only area east of Federal Highway offering a concentration of produce fields. Tomatoes grew in proliferation, and packing plants and canneries prepared tomatoes for shipment on the Flagler Railroad to points north, from which they were sent around the world. But in 1947 a dredging operation accidentally flooded the fields with salt water and ruined the soil. Still, the festival continued until 1958, more as a celebration of the city's founding than of tomatoes. In fact tomatoes were so scarce in Dania by 1956 that they had to be imported for the various contests and cook-offs.

Pioneer tomato farmers Jasper and Addie Thomas were the only growers to weather the flood with any success. The Jaspers have since passed on, but the family continues to grow tomatoes and operates the only produce stand in town that sells locally grown toms.

The Thomases' daughter, Pamela Shaw, will be on hand when Dania Beach honors her parents at a revival of the festival this weekend. When the festival was first established, its proceeds went toward rebuilding Dania United Methodist Church, which had been devastated in the hurricane of 1926. The new festival will benefit Dania Beach Main Street, Inc., the entity charged with revitalizing the city's downtown area.

Plenty of tomato-related events will take place during the festival, but except for some Thomas produce, the tomatoes will once again be brought in from elsewhere.

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John Ferri