WEST STOCKBRIDGE -- For one small town in the Berkshires, nothing represents that last gasp of summer fun more than the Zucchini Festival. This Saturday, Aug. 11, life in the tiny hamlet of West Stockbridge is all about the long, green summer squash. Residents and out-of-towners alike will crowd the downtown area, which is bisected by the Williams River, to see zucchini catapults, zucchini decorating contests, a parade of zucchini-clad pets, "zuck races" -- and, new this year, the crowning of the first official "Queenie Zucchini."
It’s certainly a zucchini-crazy town, and while it might sound odd, the event is less about the vegetable than it is about a community coming together.
"You have the old timers who grew up here, the newcomers, the second-homeowner population, and the volunteers who make it possible -- really everyone comes together for this, and I’m not sure you really see that in other towns," said Robert Salerno, the town historian who also serves as a coordinator for the event, now in its ninth year.
And it’s not something that West Stockbridge had until Joel Hotchkiss came up with the idea nearly a decade ago.
An artist, Hotchkiss also owns and runs Hotchkiss Mobiles and the adjoining Perks Cafe in West Stockbridge with his wife Sandra. A transplant from Oakland, Calif, Hotchkiss and his wife relocated to West Stockbridge in 1993 and soon noticed the town was in need of an event that would bolster community pride.
As a member of the town’s cultural council, Hotchkiss learned that the local Kiwanis Club used to sponsor a community day with street-fair activities and games for children. It wasn’t a big leap to see that a town-wide festival was just the ticket.
"Who doesn’t like zucchini?, I thought," adding that the veggie made a perfect theme. "I knew we had to have our own festival," Hotchkiss said. With a catchy name and a quirky concept, Hotchkiss brought his idea for a town festival to other members of the community in 2004. The cultural council raised half the funds needed, while the town of West Stockbridge matched the other half.
With about 10 volunteers, the first festival got off to a slow start. It was pouring rain most the day, and most of the individual events were cancelled. By noon, Hotchkiss’s spirits were dampened, too, and he wondered if the event should continue. "It was a mess," he recalled. Luckily, by mid-afternoon the skies cleared, and the night was capped off with fireworks and dancing. The event was a success.
Over the years, both the festival and interest in it have continued to grow. While there aren’t more than 1,300 full-time residents of the town and another 400 second-homeowners, West Stockbridge has had more than 3,000 people fills its streets on festival day, especially when the weather is good.
The first major community celebration held in West Stockbridge was a festival in 1938 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of West Stockbridge’s railroad - the first of its kind in the Commonwealth -- and two other town-wide celebrations, in 1926 and 1976, marked the nation’s 150 and 200th birthdays.
Salerno moved to West Stockbridge in 1980, but still commutes to New York City, where he works as a consultant and teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The festival requires the effort of 150 volunteers, a level of commitment he says he is awed by. "The volunteers have so much fun working on this," he said. "I have friends who live in New York who come to stay with my wife and me just so they can work the Zucchini Festival - the festival is just this fun, funky thing that people wan to be a part of."
All this fun doesn’t come cheap, though. Salerno said the festival costs over $10,000 annually, and its organizers begin planning as early as November. They hold monthly meetings to get all of the logistics in place, then, as festival time approaches, the committee meets weekly and divides into sub-groups to cover all the bases, from promoting the event and figuring out parking, to organizing the roughly 40 street vendors. Salerno said everything usually works out pretty smoothly. Volunteers set up larger tents around 5 p.m. the night before, and vendors start to arrive the next morning around 7 a.m.
The festival’s official 10 a.m. opening event is punctuated by the pet parade, where anyone’s dog, cat or iguana willing to don a zucchini disguise may win first place. There are other zucchini-themed events throughout the day, including the inaugural "Queenie Zucchini costume contest," which is open to "any male or female human of voting age," Hotchkiss said.
Many of the day’s contests have judges as colorful as the vegetable of the day. Former TV film critic and Berkshire resident Gene Shalit will be joined by two "mystery judges" to crown this year’s Queenie Zucchini, while William Morrell, owner and chef of West Stockbridge restaurant Rouge, will judge the day’s zucchini baking contest. Local bands provide live music and dancing, and the event caps off at 9:30 p.m. with a fireworks display behind Hotchkiss’ gallery.
For local business owners, there’s nothing better than the Zucchini Festival. "It’s an exciting time for us," said Mary Ellen Devanny, owner of The Great Exchange at 18 Main Street, which sells art, antiques and jewelry. Devaney’s store benefits from so many festival-goers. "It’s our block party," she said. "It’s a blast. Everybody looks forward to it because it’s the town’s way of hosting people from all over."
Robin Greeson owns Equator, an antiques and collectibles shop that opened on Main Street in April. She plans to keep her store open during the festival, too. "I think it brings more people who might not know about the town to see all of the good things that are happening here," she said. For Hotchkiss it’s gratifying to see his admittedly crazy idea come to life.
"It did exactly what it was supposed to do," he said. "It became a community event. I wanted the theme to be quasi-silly, to be funny and a little absurd -- as long as it’s silly fun, you can forget the world, forget everything, forget politics, and just have a good time."
For more info: weststockbridgetown.com