Niland Tomato & Sportsman's Festival

January 26, 2002|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

NILAND — The year was 1940.

The fields around this small North County community were filled with red as tomatoes grew in abundance across the landscape.

It only made sense to create a festival to honor a crop that played such a key role in the community.

That is exactly what people in the community did — created a tomato festival that later would become the Niland Tomato & Sportsman's Festival.

Sixty-two years later, those who call Niland home are getting ready to continue the tradition.

On Feb. 8-10, the 62nd annual event will be celebrated just as in years past — with a parade, a tomato-packing contest, a carnival, queen contests, food and other contests and events meant to bring the community and the Imperial Valley together.


"This is Niland's one big thing of the year," said Donna Dearmore, president of the Niland Chamber of Commerce.

Dearmore added the festival is a fund-raising event for the chamber, providing the money it needs for the other events and activities it sponsors throughout the year. The money also helps the chamber offer scholarships to the community's youth.

The festival is a reminder of a different time in the Imperial Valley — when tomatoes were a huge crop and tomato-packing sheds were common in North County.

"The Imperial Valley was the tomato capital of the country," Dearmore said.

While the salad day of the tomato has passed in the Valley, the festival has lived on as a reminder of local history. And Dearmore said there is a lot of history to the festival itself.

Dearmore came to the Valley when she was 3 years old, just a few years after the festival was created. Each year Dearmore's family would attend the festival, which in the early years, was held in a large circus-size tent.

Dearmore remembers one early year when the winds were so strong, that the tent was knocked down while people were inside it.

As the festival grew, organizers eventually started calling the event the Niland Tomato & Sportsman's Festival to attract more people and highlight the fact the Niland area is a popular site for hunters.

Clifford Lawrence, a longtime organizer of the festival, said it is important to stage the fest each year because it teaches Niland's youth about the history of their community.

"It brings to the attention of the kids the way it used to be," Lawrence said.

Kids play an important part in the festival.

Seventh- and eighth-graders will take part in an essay contest in which winners in each grade will win $125, those who finish second will win $75, and third-place finishers will get $50.

As is part of the tradition of the festival, girls ages 15 to 19 from throughout the Imperial Valley will take part in the Queen Cleopatra contest and girls ages 2-14 will take part in the future queen contest.

The girls win the contests based on the number of tickets they sell for the event.

Polla Brim, first vice president of the Niland chamber, said the contests bring together families in that mothers who participated in the contests can now watch their daughters do so.

"It is a tradition," Brim said, adding, "It's a very nice thing for them."

Festival organizers said they look forward to seeing it continue for years to come. However, they said it takes a lot to work to bring the event to fruition each year.

Lawrence said some of the same people have been organizing the festival for 25 years and he said it is time for new volunteers to join in the effort.

>> Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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