MAXWELL: Big hearts in a small Florida town

4/17/2008 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Huck Finn bragged that he and his trusted companion, Jim, pulled a catfish as big as a man out of the Mississippi River. That’s a big cat.
Although I didn’t hear that kind of fish story last week in Crescent City at its 30th annual Catfish Festival, I overheard a lot of men brag about how many catfish they’ve eaten at one time. I also got reacquainted with the enduring magic of rural America and the communal spirit of small-town events and rituals.
I had to ward off falling too hard for the allure of nostalgia. After all, I graduated from the then-all-black high school in Crescent City in 1963, and I’ve always been compelled to return for short spells to experience the complex and dubious innocence of the backwoods, a term I don’t use pejoratively. And, by the way, I’m aware that the conservatism of small towns can be stifling.
Crescent City, with a population of 1,817, and known as the “Bass Capital of the World,” has its own Putnam County patois that announces the town’s hospitality. It’s a genuine hospitality with roots in agrarianism and living off the region’s land and waterways that still offer some of the best freshwater fishing in the state.
When I came to the two-day festival for the first time in 1980, about 7,000 people attended. Last week, an estimated 30,000 came to Eva Lyon Park downtown, where the event is held over Friday and Saturday during the first full weekend of April. I was amazed that a town with fewer than 2,000 residents could attract so many people to an event celebrating the lowly catfish.
Even though Eva Lyon Park on U.S. Highway 17 is only about 1.5 acres, it hosts dozens of arts and crafts vendors from around the state, an antique car show, live bands, games for children and pony rides.
Food, of course, is central to the festival. I watched as festivalgoers feasted on a variety of genuine Cracker dishes, including gator tail, frog legs, quail, chicken, potato wedges, fresh strawberry shortcake, swamp cabbage and iced tea. The specialty is the famous fried catfish dinner, served with coleslaw and hush puppies.
Because the park is on Highway 17, the town’s main street, thousands of tourists who typically zoom through get out of their cars and join the celebration. I met a couple returning to Canada from Disney World and a Wisconsin family of five going to Daytona Beach.
A man from New Jersey said: “Next year, my wife and I are going to plan our vacation so we won’t miss this. It’s great. They know how to fry catfish, and everybody’s friendly.”
I’m not big on parades, but the Catfish Parade, the highlight of the festival, was actually enjoyable. It had all of the essentials and more: the high school marching band (at least part of it), several floats with smiling people waving, a fire truck, a police car, the Boy Scouts, the Shriners and their crazy cars, motorcyclists, politicians glad-handing for votes and live, giant catfish in a mobile aquarium.
The festival, which is sponsored and run by the Crescent City Rotary Club, defines real community. Club members and many others spend hundreds of volunteer hours all year long planning the event. It’s successful because of the townsfolk’s selfless teamwork. They’re working for a worthy cause. All of the money from the festival goes into the Rotary’s scholarship fund, most of it providing college scholarships for students at Crescent City High School. In 2006, more than $35,000 from the festival went to scholarships. Other organizations such as the YMCA and the South Putnam County Christian Service Center also receive money.
Crescent City and its annual Catfish Festival manifest the best of small-town Florida, where people know their neighbors and share the good fortune for the greater good.