When a 17-year-old Aimee Warner accepted the title of Strawberry Queen in 1948, she had no idea she'd be the last young woman in western Kentucky to hold that title.
Warner -- whose married name is Grimm -- did have a hunch the industry wasn't what it used to be. Like every Strawberry Queen before her, she came from a family that farmed the fruit, and she'd noticed fewer pickers on their McCracken County farm.
"It was dying out," Grimm recalled.
But the change came more abruptly than expected.
Strawberry production, and the excitement surrounding Paducah's yearly celebration, had peaked just a decade earlier.
An ad for the June 1940 festival promised "Paducah's biggest celebration in 113 years!" In 1935, 850 freight cars full of berries shipped from the area. Five thousand members of the McCracken County Strawberry Association from nine counties planted more than 4,000 acres that year, Fred G. Neuman wrote in his 1941 program for the festival.
Western Kentucky's status as "Strawberry Capital of the World" turned out to be as fleeting -- and sweet -- as the fruit's local growing season.
"Perhaps no agricultural enterprise in McCracken County had as meteoric a rise as the commercial production of strawberries," The Paducah Sun-Democrat asserted in a 1956 article about the industry.
A group of community leaders, merchants and farmers formed the McCracken County Strawberry Growers Association in 1913.
Early on, the idea of farming the red fruits for commercial purposes elicited, at best, a lukewarm response from some members of the community, particularly tobacco growers.
"By no stretch of the imagination could (long-term tobacco growers) realize that the world would be at their doorsteps with drooling mouths for the fruit the 'city fellers' were urging them to grow in quantity," the news article read.
Undeterred, the Growers Association launched a campaign to secure pledged acreage for the crop, and eventually 29½ acres were pledged. The first yield was less than a carload, and increased only slightly, to one and then two carloads, in 1914 and 1915.
But the effort saw "remarkable success" in the 1920s and '30s, the Sun-Democrat stated, shipping its Dixie Aroma berries to eastern and Canadian markets. The Blakemore variety, as well as Tennessee Beauty and Dixie Beauty strawberries, gained popularity in later years.
Growers received an average of $5.56 per crate in the 1930s, and 35,000 pickers worked in the strawberry fields in 1935.
The strawberry harvest became a communitywide effort and social occasion. Even children were let out of school and compensated for helping pick berries in late May and early June, said Pat Brockenborough, whose father, E.J. Paxton, was a founding member of the Strawberry Growers Association.
"You'd go down one row of plants and strike up a conversation with the person across from you. By the time you filled that basket, you and that person would be good friends," she recalled.
A community effort called for a community celebration, and the first Strawberry Festival was held in 1937, author Barron White said in his book "I Remember Paducah When … ."
The festivals took place in early June as the berries' harvest season ended. The events brought fireworks, street dances, pageants and at least one Strawberry Queen's Ball on the rooftop of the Irvin Cobb Hotel. What Brockenborough remembers best, though, is the parade, which would pass by her front lawn on 14th and Broadway.
"It was an exciting time," she said.
A changing world
As the rumblings of World War II grew louder in the states, the Strawberry Festival took a hiatus. Strawberry production had been decreasing as the war effort mounted. The United States' entry into the conflict meant farmers had to rely on "schoolchildren and mothers" to get the strawberries into the crates, the Sun-Democrat reported.
"The days of 40 or 50 railroad carload shipments were becoming a thing of the past," the article stated.
The war didn't kill the celebration. The Strawberry Festival ceased after its 1941 celebration, but returned in 1945, John E.L. Robertson wrote in his book, "Paducah."
Grimm doesn't remember every detail of the 1948 festival, but she knows she felt excited to receive the honor. She appeared in an ivory-colored satin dress her mother had made.
"They didn't do floats after the war. I think we rode in a convertible," she said. "On Kentucky Avenue, they presented me with a crown (and) two pieces of Samsonite luggage."
For Grimm, the crown and luggage were secondary. A young Sun-Democrat employee named Bob Grimm took note of her photo in the newspaper, and decided he had to have a date with the 1948 Strawberry Queen. Young Aimee Warner's 15 minutes of fame led to 66 years of marriage and counting.
The industry that led to their meeting wasn't quite as lucky.
Two years after Grimm's coronation, "the strawberry industry in McCracken County … was at rock bottom. An estimated 90 percent of farm operators and workers … took industrial employment brought on by construction of the atomic plant," the Sun-Democrat reported, adding that another far-off conflict, this time in Korea, worsened the labor shortage.
The growers association's nine-county district had only 300 acres of strawberries, and the association shipped no berries by rail in 1954 or 1955, the article noted. Yet in 1956 the crop seemed to be making a comeback.
"Strawberries, perhaps, had started the second cycle toward the million-dollar industry it once was in this area," the article speculated.
That second cycle never materialized. The first half of the 20th century is still considered Paducah's heyday of strawberry production, as the local floodwall mural portraying 1940 Strawberry Queen Sally Stahl attests.
Seventy years have passed since Paducah crowned a Strawberry Queen. If the tradition returns, it likely won't be due to a sudden boom in strawberry production.
Changes in transportation -- including the advent of refrigerated shipping and the gradual decline of rail service to the area -- have conspired with other factors to keep Paducah from reclaiming its status.
"As technology advanced, it wasn't quite as feasible (to make money shipping strawberries) because it was cheaper to get things shipped from other parts of the country year-round," said Carolyn Roof, garden writer for The Sun.
States like California and Florida, as well as countries closer to the equator, are able to produce more of the berries at a lower cost. Their growing season lasts longer than western Kentucky's, and farmers there don't have to deal with the costs of protecting their berries from the cold, farmer Danny Garrett said.
The varieties of berries that thrive in this area also are more delicate than the strawberries that have been bred for shipping, appearance and uniformity. Today's grocery store customers have come to expect shiny, shapely berries all year, Roof added.
"(Consumers) want that 'perfect' strawberry, that 'perfect' tomato. Who cares what it tastes like? And it has to be able to pick up at one point and survive the trip across the country, or from South America," she said. "We demand fruits and vegetables year-round. People don't know what seasons are."
A market still exists for local berries, and farmers here do make money from the crop.
Garrett raises about 25,000 berries on roughly 4 acres of his McCracken County farm. Strawberries represent one of his biggest crops.
"Things have changed so much," he said. "Berries are grown locally, for local consumption. The shipping part (of the industry) is gone from this area.
"Transportation was part of it, but everything went through a change," Garrett noted. "People had better opportunities to make a better living. It probably wasn't just the strawberries."
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