Four years after Hurricane Michael all but crushed the Florida Seafood Festival, and two years after COVID 19 dealt it a serious blow, the double whammy of hurricane and the coronavirus nearly toppled the 59th annual festival last weekend.
But they didn’t, and blessed with sunny skies, an enormous parade and last-minute accommodations by the volunteer board of directors, the festival brought in scores of visitors to Apalachicola, and a modest, but far from a record, crowd to the festival.
The first strike came with the announcement on the eve of the festival that there would be no rides, as has been the case for more than the last two decades of the festival. Hurricane Ian had forced a cancellation by the ride company, due to a problem with personnel and logistics, and it became impossible, even with a financial guarantee to their replacement by the ride provider, and with the help of state officials, to attract another ride company.
To make sure there was some accommodation to the many families who have become accustomed to the rides, Festival Director John Solomon and the board turned to a bounce house provider out of South Carolina that provided a modest alternative.
The Blessing of the Fleet at Riverfront Park went smoothly, led by Pastor Scotty Lolley, and a large crew of clergy who included Pastors Thomas Wessm Wade Blevins, Scott Shiver, John Bishop, Weston Severns, Jessica Gay, Kory Gordon and Patricia Garrett and Evangelist Alma Pugh.
Joining them was the color guard of Caden Allen and Caleb Lolley, crucifer Zion Washington and the wreath bearers Thea and Camilla Croom.
After Miss Florida Seafood Autumn Loesch and King Retsyo Chris Howard stepped off the shrimp boat, they rode to the festival where they were introduced by Mayor Brenda Ash and Solomon.
Later that evening, Christian music artist Hope Darst played to a rousing concert and following that, the festival shared the second item of disappointment, that Saturday’s headliner Chris Cagle had canceled his performance, rumored to be due to COVID but officially noted by organizers as “for medical reasons.”
The festival worked with their agent to find a replacement (St. George Island’s Billy Dean was out of town) and after reaching out to around 45 Nashville artists, they secured Trea Landon, a country artist from Georgia who had a scheduled performance earlier Saturday in Steinhatchee.
The parade Saturday was a huge affair, no doubt helped by it being on the eve of the midterm elections, with politicians of all stripes taking part.
Following that, it was time for the annual oyster shucking competition and that turned out to have a new twist. Loesch, who works at The Station, shucked her own oyster and slurped it to kick off the contests.
The event featured last year’s champion Honor Allen, from That Cajun Place, and a wealth of other top finishers at last month’s national competition in Maryland, including Joshua Blevins, Matt Hutchinson and Max Dawson.
The competition was its usual dramatic event, with the William Tell Overture playing in the background.
Allen finished first, and looked to be skating to a win, especially since he would have the improvement in his time by having the best-looking tray of two dozen oysters.
But when the awards were announced, the Hunt’s Oyster Bar team of Dawson, Hutchinson and Blevins finished one-two-three, respectively, and Allen was out of the money.
But a review of the scores showed the timing of Allen’s shucking had been misread, and he was later declared the winner, with Dawson second and Hutchinson third.
At the oyster eating competition, there were more than a few competitors who couldn’t keep their oysters down during the allotted 15 minutes, and decorated the grass behind the raised platform.
Port St. Joe’s Keith Nixon, who was leading in the contest at the time, was among those whose chuck was upped.
“If I had held on and backed off I’d have been all right,” he said. “I had fun and that’s all that matters.”
Hyer Dement ended up winning, with George Finn second and in third, longtime winner Thomas Gibson.
Gibson’s daughter Keira, from Deal’s Famous Oyster House in Perry, once again took home the win for the women, with 80 oysters, about a dozen more than the other female contestant, Chang Jun, from Panama City.
At one five-feet, one-inch tall, the petit Jun was competing in her first event and was delighted how it came out. “I was so excited to come,” she said. “For me to eat that much is worth it.”
Because volunteerism can be a scarcity these days, there were only four non-profits offering food, alongside the commercial fair food vendors. They included Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church shucking oysters, the First Baptist Church Christian School offering shrimp, the Forgotten Coast Dance Academy frying mullet and the Franklin County High School Class of 2024 serving up gumbo.
The arts and crafts area had scores of booths and there was a steady, modest crowd all day.
Landon, a young up-and-coming artist out of Nashville, turned out to offer a spirited concert, with the audience loving his energy and enthusiasm.
By the time the evening came to an end, the streets of downtown Apalachicola remained busy, the bars and restaurants were hopping and the festival had done what it set out to do, despite the challenges.