Mountain 'Mater Fest celebrates ninth year

By Stina Sieg | Jul 30, 2012
Photo by: Stina Sieg Mountain 'Mater Fest draws people to Canton every year — even when the weather doesn't cooperate. Above, the little cloggers of the Fines Creek Flatfooters perform in the rain. Don't worry — this year's forecast is bright and sunny.

As John Denver famously sang, “There are only two things money can’t buy and that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.”

While it’s true the Mountain ’Mater Fest can’t help you in the love department, at least it will be selling plenty of tomatoes. And while they don’t come from a neighbor’s yard, for many people around here, JW Johnson’s Bethel farm is about as close to home as it gets.

As Deborah Reed makes sure to emphasize, those tomatoes — donated in bushels and then sold to attendees — have always been the backbone of this festival, which celebrates its ninth year this week with two days of fun (and tomato-filled food).

“We could not do this festival at all, if not for JW Johnson,” said Reed, president of FOCUS on Canton, the community organization that’s been behind the shindig from the start.

His tomatoes are sure to be juicy and ripe, but they’re not the only things on the menu at ’Mater Fest, which will fill Canton’s Rec Park from 3 to 7 p.m. Friday and from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday. Now in its ninth year, the small-town celebration has more festivities planned than ever, including a car show, talent show, music, cloggers, a tomato-eating contest, an exotic petting zoo and more. It’s even got Balsam Range, which will close out Saturday night.

It looks like this little festival — which began as a way to draw people to back to downtown Canton after it was hit by disastrous floods in 2004 — isn’t so little any more.

“We’re just real excited this year,” Reed said.

With good reason. While ’Mater Fest has been growing for a long while now, this year feels a little different than fests past. With a tie-in to Pickin’ in the Park Friday night and the Tommy Toe ’Mater Downtown Festival all day Saturday, ’Mater Fest should reach a wider audience than ever before. A few unnamed residents are even dressing up in homemade tomato costumes to help draw downtown traffic to the rec park (and in this heat, that takes dedication).

This outpouring of community support might surprise some, but not longtime Canton residents like Neal McCracken. McCracken, who’s been in charge of the festival’s entertainment for years, explained that while a small, core group of people put on the festival, it’s enjoyed by pretty much everyone around here.

“I think it’s great. We have a wonderful time,” he said. “Everybody just seems to be tickled to death.”

While of course he enjoys the festival’s entertainment (with The Lisa Price Band and Simple Folks being a few of his favorites this year), he also has a soft spot for all the tomato snacks and vendors. All of this together helps draw a crowd that he thinks even rivals that of the town’s Labor Day celebration.

When asked if this popularity makes him feel optimistic about Canton’s future, he sounded pretty sure.

“Oh, yeah. I definitely do,” he said. “I love this town.”

And that — more than anything, tomatoes included — is at the heart of this festival. Reed, who has called Canton home for more than 20 years, sounds pretty confident her little town is ready for a renaissance. For her, ’Mater Fest isn’t just a two-day party but a celebration of all the things she loves about Canton, from its tight-knit nature to its family friendliness.

Reed hopes everyone who comes to the festival leaves with a sense of all that — plus a tomato or two.

’Mater Fest “brings people home, if you will,” she said.

’Mater Fest schedule

3 p.m. — Festival begins at Canton Rec Park
3 to 5 p.m. — Keil Nathan Band
5 to 6 p.m. — Talent show performers
6 p.m. — Classic Car Cruise In
7 p.m. — Pickin’ in The Park

9 a.m. — Festival begins at Canton Rec Park (with Tommy Toe festival and sidewalk sale continuing all day in downtown Canton)
9 a.m. — Car show
11 a.m. to noon — Fred Riley Riley Academy of Martial Arts Demonstration
Noon to 1 p.m. — Mariachi Sombade Mexico Band
1 to 3 p.m. — Lisa Price Band
1:15 p.m. — Southern Appalachian Cloggers
2:30 p.m. — Fines Creek Flat Footers (children’s dance team)
3 to 5 p.m. — Simple Folks
3:30 p.m. — Smokey Mountain Stompers
4:30 p.m. — Smokey Mountain Stompers
5 to 6 p.m. — Gray Wolf
6 to 7 p.m. — Harris Brothers
7 to 10 p.m. — Balsam Range
8 p.m. — Green Valley Cloggers

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