Juicy, red and plump, there’s nothing like a Hanover Tomato. And each July, the county’s VIP produce takes center stage at the Hanover Tomato Festival.
But the event that has become synonymous with Hanover has humble roots in a remote corner of the county called Black Creek.
That’s where, in 1978, a group of volunteer firemen decided to celebrate Black Creek’s largest export, the Hanover Tomato. Over the past 35 years, the Hanover Tomato Festival has grown from 300 people to 30,000, benefiting the Black Creek Volunteer Fire Department and heralding Hanover’s prized red, and sometimes green, beauties.
Larry Leber, president of Black Creek VFD, was with the department when it embarked on what would become a 35-year tradition. He said the actual idea for the event originated with Larry Sutton, the then-president of Black Creek VFD. The notion was to create an event that reflects the area’s identity.
“We were looking for something for our end of the county to say, ‘what do you think of when you think of Black Creek?’” Leber said. “The only thing that came to mind was produce, or in this case, tomatoes.”
“Ever since I can remember there’s been tomato farmers out here, and there still are,” Leber added. “So that’s how that idea got kicked around and from there it’s just grown, in leaps and bounds.”
It’s no secret that Hanover Tomatoes are coveted. Leber, who grew up working on local farms, said Black Creek’s tomato farmers have been known to sell their produce as far away as Washington D.C.
“Everybody wanted as many Hanover Tomatoes as they could get their hands on,” Leber said.
Leber also said that, geographically speaking, tomatoes grown in Hanover County but outside of the Black Creek area, can’t truly be called “Hanover Tomatoes.”
“You have to specify a little bit. What we call a Hanover Tomato, is in the Black Creek area,” Leber said. “We don’t recognize the Old Church and Studley areas for Hanover Tomatoes.”
“It’s a friendly rivalry,” Leber added.
The first Hanover Tomato Festival was held on the grounds of the old Black Creek fire station on McClellan Road, which now belongs to the
adjacent Baptist church. According to Leber, the event consisted mainly of a fireman’s parade and competition and a tomato judging contest.
“It was kind of small, low key. For this area we had a good turnout the first year, we filled up the parking lot with people,” he said.
Lynn Watson, a lifetime member of Black Creek VFD, recalls that at the first festival, there was one food booth and about 10 craft vendor tables in addition to games and displays. Though she was not yet a member of the department in 1978, Watson was involved in that first event through her father Oscar Watson, a longtime Black Creek fireman who helped found the festival and carried on the tradition up until his death in September 2012.
“It was a family thing and still is a family thing and we all helped,” she said.
Donnie West, 1st assistant chief at Black Creek VFD and president of the Hanover Tomato Festival board, has been involved with the festival for the past 16 years.
West said he wasn’t at the very first tomato festival, but remembers bringing his children to early events to watch the fireman’s parade.
“I thought it was right nice the way they had things done,” he said.
An estimated 300 people attended that first festival. Recent events have brought in crowds upwards of 20,000.
“We’ve had a lot of growing pains,” Watson said.
As the event grew year after year, Leber said organizers realized early on they were “tight on space” at the firehouse. As the years progressed, the department began to look at its options, and the festival expanded to Battlefield Park Elementary School.
West joined the department while the festival was being held at Battlefield Park and had the responsibility of directing traffic into the event.
“It was very rough out there parking. One of my jobs was parking and I was standing out there on [Route] 360,” West said. “I started out at the bottom and worked my way up.”
The festival was held on school grounds for several years and actually took a one-year hiatus after losing access to the property. That’s when Hanover Parks and Recreation stepped in and the event moved to its current location at Pole Green Park in Mechanicsville, where it has grown and prospered.
This year’s event is being dedicated to the man that helped make that possible.
“This being the 35th anniversary, we’re going to dedicate it to Oscar, and I think that means a lot to the whole department,” West said. “He was a great man, I really miss him. We just want to keep it going for him.”
“I’ve got some hard shoes to fill,” he added.
This September, Leber will have belonged to Black Creek VFD for 45 years. He joined the department when he was just 14 years old and helped
build the original firehouse in 1968.
Looking back on the parallel tracks of the Black Creek VFD and Hanover Tomato Festival, Leber marveled at how the festival with humble roots has grown into the county’s largest annual event.
“Nobody had any idea that this thing was going to take off the way it has. We just figured we’d run it for a few years and see how it went and plan from there. Once we got on board with Parks and Rec and they started helping us out, the thing really took off in leaps and bounds at that point,” Leber said.
“We wouldn’t be able to do it today without Parks and Rec’s help,” he added.
Watson said that the Hanover Tomato Festival has helped keep Black Creek VFD in the limelight.
“It has put Black Creek on the map and has raised awareness of what we do in the fire department,” Watson said. “Black Creek Fire Department is associated with the Hanover Tomato Festival now and always will be.”
She added that it’s unlikely the department would be what it is today without the festival.
“It’s possible, but the tomato festival gives us all something to come together about, and this is all about community involvement,” Watson said.
A lot of planning and work goes into each year’s festival. There’s parking, security, electricity, and a slue of other minutia not readily perceptible by the tomato-munching public.
According to Leber, planning for next year’s Hanover Tomato Festival will begin just three weeks after Saturday’s event. And hopefully the tradition will continue to bear fruit.