W_-_Watermelon_IMG_2005_copyW-Watermelon_contestants_1956_copyPhoto 1: Young contestants get their fill of juicy watermelon during Saturday’s watermelon eating contest.; Photo 2: The traditional hog calling contest brought together former and currently reigning watermelon queens as well as hopefuls at the 67th Annual Watermelon Festival.

Melon eating and beauty pageants highlight festivities

NEWBERRY – Ocala resident Mannie Martin, 7, stood at the end of a brown tarp. He bent back and then forward. He spit out a small black seed and sent it flying down the tarp.

“I concentrated on my speed and how far it needed to go,” he said.

Mannie, who won the seed-spitting contest and watermelon rolling contest for his age group, was just one of the winners at the 67th Annual Newberry Watermelon Festival on Saturday.

The annual festival raises money for local schools and brings in hundreds of festival-goers every year. Last year, the festival raised $5,000 for local schools, according to the festival’s publicity coordinator Kathi Thomas.

With 600 watermelons donated for this year’s event, participants had plenty of opportunities to express their love for the juicy fruit.

Wedges of free watermelon were sliced on the spot and given out. The melon slices quickly disappeared almost as soon as they were placed on the table, as people eagerly sampled the cool, sweet fruit.

“We love watermelon, and it’s in the neighborhood, so we thought we’d check it out,” Newberry resident Alan Dufner said.

The festivities began with the annual parade at 9 a.m. in downtown Newberry. Winners of this year’s beauty pageants sat in the beds of trucks or on top of cars, handing out candy to those lining the streets.

Lake City resident Laney Grinstead, the queen for the 5 to 6-year-old age group, sat in the backseat of a blue convertible with a lime green blanket. She slept with the blanket every night, the 5-year-old said.

Another watermelon queen had another charm for good luck.  The 1-year-old queen, Brinley Othus, of Lake Butler, is the daughter of former watermelon queen Melinda Othus.

Melinda Othus said that she did the watermelon beauty pageants since she was Brinley’s age. “It’s kind of in the genes,” she said.

After the parade, the festival continued at Oak View Middle School, where participants could check out over 40 vendors, play carnival-style games or participate in watermelon-themed games.

Gainesville resident Ashley Bolin took a break from working with The Pampered Chef to participate in the hog-calling contest. She stood at the end of the stage and waited her turn as the contestants squealed “Soo-eee!” or “Here, Piggy, Piggy.”

Bolin had a slightly different strategy and instead held her hand up to her ear in the shape of a phone. Then she imitated a phone call with a pig. Her creative twist on the hog-calling contest was a favorite with the audience and led her to win the adult section of the contest.

After the contest and the silent auction for watermelon-themed items came the crowning of this year’s Watermelon Queen. The former queen, Jenna Garrett, held back tears as she took the stage one last time. The six contestants then entered the spotlight. They stood anxiously as the preliminary awards, such as the congeniality award and the photogenic award were given out.

Katie Wilkerson of Trenton, 20, was announced as the winner. She held back tears as she posed for pictures. Wilkerson was participating in the contest for the second time and said she had prepared for the pageant for a month in advance.

This year’s festival ended at 6:30 p.m., but the “slice of tradition” created by the festival and the tasty summertime fruit will continue.

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