Just one year shy of its golden anniversary, this weekend’s 49th annual Florida Seafood Festival is going to light up Apalachicola like never before.
“We expect it to be one of the best,” said John Solomon, president of the non-profit that oversees the affair. “It’s shaping up to be a very good one. There’s a lot of growth and interest this year in the festival.”
As proof of his assertion, Solomon cited Saturday evening’s headline entertainment, country star Lee Brice, whose hit song “Hard to Love” has reached number one on Billboard's Country Song Chart.
Two days before he steps on stage, Brice will be at the Country Music Awards, striding the red carpet with his fiancée as he waits to learn whether he will take home the honor of being selected Best New Artist of the Year.
But more than even music, the festival is about the rich, and stressed, bounty from the sea that has made Franklin County renowned.
Selected as King Retsyo this year is County Commissioner Smokey Parrish, and he’ll be escorting his queen, Franklin County High School senior Christina Collins, the student-athlete selected from amongst robust competition at an August pageant for the honor of Miss Florida Seafood.
Collins, daughter of Cindy Collins and Johnny Collins, has plans to study mathematics at Florida State University before returning to Franklin County to work in the family business. She had a bevy of appearances in recent days, a parade in Perry, a TV appearance in Panama City, and looks forward to representing the seafood industry.
“It’s such a great honor,” she said. “It’s mostly like a way of life. That’s how locals look at it.”
Parrish said he was proud to stand besides Collins in their roles. “I think she’s going to be great representing the county. She’s very intelligent and speaks well. She’s going to present Franklin County and the industry well, representing our heritage and way of life.”
The seafood industry is the cradle in which Parrish was born, entering the world 51 years ago in Pascagoula while his dad was fishing off the Mississippi coast.
Married to wife Angela, with three sons, Billy, 31, Smokey, Jr., 27, and Dalyn, 15, and a granddaughter Keelee Bray, 3, Parrish now works for Ward and Sons Seafood, one of the county’s oldest and most respected seafood processors.
“I got in on the processing end rather then the fishing end,” said Parrish, who shrimped with his dad on summer vacations, beginning at age 7.
After graduating from Apalachicola High School in 1979, Parrish attended Gulf Coast Community College for a while, and then worked a year in construction, before establishing a seafood industry career ever since. He now is one of the county’s most listened-to experts on the industry, and how it can be helped during these turbulent years.
“I think it’s an honor to represent the seafood industry and try to promote the seafood industry with all the battles we’re facing,” he said. “With the state of the bay as it is, they wanted a strong spokesman to speak out for the seafood industry and who had a great amount of knowledge and how to address the problems we’re facing at this time.
“We’re facing a lot of difficult regulations,” he said, as he drove back from a meeting of the Florida Commission on Oil Spill Response Coordination. “Basically we’re on a down cycle as far as freshwater we need and with FDA regulations, there’s a multitude of problems right now hitting the seafood industry from all different angles.
“Being a resilient people we just have to push forward and try to bring seafood industry back to what it once was and bring economic revival back to our community,” said Parrish.
In addition to savoring fresh, locally caught seafood, festival goers will have a lot to enjoy, beginning Friday night when the festival is free. School is out, so the park opens at 10 a.m., with the festivities formally commencing with the 4 p.m. Blessing of the Fleet, when the king and queen will arrive via the water to smile on their constituencies. Speaking of constituencies, Solomon said Saturday’s 10 a.m. parade through U.S. 98 in Apalachicola, has a boatload of politicians in it, three days before the election.
On Friday, it’s party time at the festivities, with lots of rides and amusements, and from 5 to 10:30 p.m., when the park closes, musical entertainment featuring Jhaki Davis, “Sol,” “Korn Bread,” and “90 Proof.”
There’ll be the usual tables of community organizations and vendors and artists and the like, all spread through Battery Park. Expect a surprise or two, like a huge wooden chair made by Don Lane and Bill Cox.
“Arts and crafts is completely stacked full again. We couldn’t get another one in there if we tried,” said Solomon. “We have 25 non-profit groups in the park, and 13 non-profits on food row. That’s a lot of non profits in the park, and they don’t pay anything to be part of the festival.”
The festival continues at the crack of dawn Saturday, with a 7 a.m. registration for the Redfish Run on the front steps of the Gibson Inn. Runners take off on the 5K at 8 a.m.
At 10 a.m. the gates open for the festival. It takes a $5 admission charge to get in, and that covers everything, including the 8 p.m. show by Brice. Kids under 12 are free.
“We don’t allow glass bottles into the park, and no dogs,” said Solomon. The county humane society is doing dog watching at the Bay Avenue gate for those who are interested.
After what will be an enormous parade ends, the festival gets into full gear. From 1 to 5 p.m., there’s Blue Crab races, at the top of each hour, for kids under 12. Winners get prizes; losers can search for a faster crustacean for next year.
At 1 p.m. there’s the oyster shucking contest, including Mike Martin, the Panama City shucker and returning champion, who last month won his third consecutive national championship in Maryland.
At 1:15 p.m. , your taste buds will be royally twisted by the Oyster Eating Contest, where contestants eat as many oysters as they can in the allotted time, or to their stomaches’ displeasure, whichever comes first. Understandably, there is no entry fee.
Music is all day on the main stage, beginning at noon with Ashley Carroll. At 2 p.m., entertainment continues with Living Waters Church, Eastpoint Church of God youth band, “Highway 67,” and Lisa Shaffer.
At 11 p.m. the park closes. The way of life continues, indefinitely.