Hometown hoedown

crowds at Veterans Memorial Park

Last year’s crowds at Veterans Memorial Park prove that the most recent version of Sandy Shoes is just as popular as it was 20 years ago. PHOTO PROVIDED

Sandy Shoes continues traditions started 60 years ago


“Sandy Shoes has a homespun quality, a warm, folksy, hometown sort of feeling that bigger and plushier festivals cannot match.”

— Chicago Tribune, Feb. 17, 1967

This was writer Stephen Flynn’s assessment of Sandy Shoes’ appeal when the beloved Fort Pierce festival was just 6 years old.

And warm and folksy feelings were just what the Chamber of Commerce wanted to showcase when the festival began in the 1950s. Today, it is a one-day affair instead of a week or two, but it still features the area’s industries and attractions and it still has that hometown feel.

“Sandy Shoes was the biggest thing ever,” says Fort Pierce resident Vicki Bush, who was 12 when she won a festival bowling tournament and still has a bronze boot trophy to show for it.

She was 10 when the inaugural festival in 1957 featured an abundance of events and a look at the real Florida beyond the glamor and glitz of much-hyped coastal resorts. The strategy succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations because the entire community was invested in making it happen.

It turned out to be a masterful and colorful fusion of hometown festivities for residents with a concerted effort to display an enticing way of life in a beautiful waterfront city not far from thousands of green acres of peaceful groves and pastures.

Even today the strategy drives area promotions that emphasize natural attractions rather than the glamour more likely to be found in Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

For the 20 years between 1957 and 1977, with the exception of 1962 when a sour economy caused organizers to cancel it for one year, planning for the next festival began right after the current festival ended. They met once a month, said former committee member Jim Turner, and then, as the date approached, the intensity ramped up and the group gathered once a week. Each year something new was added.

One year it was a much-needed communications system donated by Padrick Chevrolet. Another year it was a flower show and home tours hosted by a garden club. And, in yet another year, local real estate was in the spotlight as tours of new subdivisions and homes were offered to anyone sufficiently intrigued with the idea of living here.

“It was a wonderful event, a huge, huge event that brought people in from all over,” says Bush, the 1965 theme girl. Instead of queens, the festival had theme girls. Their duties were to attend all events, act as hostesses, help out where needed, be visible and greet festival-goers.

And Bush is still helping out. Her assignment for the festival’s 60th anniversary was to find and bring together all theme girls from 1957 through 1977. And she discovered the theme girl for the 2017 festival — a talented high school senior, Blair Arnold, niece of 1972 theme girl Jan Arnold.

Themes, usually submitted to a naming contest by community members, included ideas like Oceans of Gold to commemorate the finding of the 1715 gold-carrying Spanish fleet that wrecked during a hurricane off the shores of Fort Pierce, or Yesterday and Tomorrow to celebrate the past while looking toward the future.

The first festival was predated by a one-day event in 1956 put on by the cattlemen. They hosted a parade with about 400 horsemen and a tour of the huge Adams Ranch. It was a tremendous success. In a Jan. 19, 1973, article in the Florida Today newspaper, event co-chairman W.G. Padrick Jr. recalled that an unexpected 1,000 people showed up and that he’d never seen so much traffic.

That success was enough to prompt the Chamber of Commerce to consider creation of a weeklong festival that would not only be fun for residents, but also show out-of-state visitors parts of Florida life and activities that “they rarely, if ever, see,” according to a Feb. 17, 1957, article in The New York Times.

A festival committee was formed in 1956 and planning commenced, resulting in a six-day festival in February 1957. That year, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, Elvis shocked censors on the Ed Sullivan Show, and The Bridge on the River Kwai was playing at the movies.

The Sandy Shoes Festival was named by 17-year-old Gail McManus who said the oft-quoted statement that “once you get Florida sand in your shoes you’ll surely return” inspired her to propose Sandy Shoes. She was also the first theme girl.

The committee packed the festival schedule with a cattlemen’s parade, trips to cattle ranches, rodeos, a golf tournament, an art exhibit, boat races, water-skiing, a tomato auction, barbecue, historical pageant, boat trips on the St. Lucie and Indian rivers, sightseeing in the groves and citrus packing houses and midget car races with cars a quarter of the size of a normal car.

The behind-the-scenes peek at the “real Florida” brought people in from all around the country who wanted to see where their oranges came from and what a real working ranch looked like while enjoying the food, the competitions, the ocean and rivers.

After that first thrilling success, there was some discussion about the most advantageous time to hold the festival. Should it be held during prime tourist season or when many tourists had gone home and the locals could relish their competitions and food without so many snowbirds on hand. The festival dates frequently moved and its length often changed during its first 20 years.

In 1958, the six-day festival shrank to five days. The historical drama Along These Waters was one of seven outdoor dramas produced and directed by Ada Coats Williams and water-sports competitions were added to the schedule. The popular play would continue to be performed for years.

The following year the festival, saw more than 100 people cast in Along These Waters, billed as an outdoor drama about the “legends, romance and history of St. Lucie County,” according to a New York Times article. A flower show was added, as well as a tour of local homes and a fishing derby.

Motorcycle race

Motorcycle races were a popular event during the early days of the festival. PHOTO PROVIDED

Sandy Shoes moved to April in 1960 and featured a presidential straw poll. That was the year Richard M. Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy. A water-ski show put on by the University of Miami ski club and a golf tournament added some excitement.

In 1965, the festival spanned late February and early March. Growing more elaborate, it offered two carnivals and a rather unique treasure hunt on the beach. Merchants filled small chests with donated items and buried the chests in the sand. It was the job of eager festival-goers to dig with shovels for buried treasure.

About 50 events filled the festival that year, Bush says. She had to be at all of them. She recalled the Beaux Arts Ball where everyone wore western gear and artist A.E. “Bean” Backus sat in a Volkswagen with pretty girls surrounding the car.

A year later, Sandy Shoes shared the spotlight and an almost identical timeframe with the first year of the St. Lucie County Fair. The fair was at the newly built fairgrounds adjacent to the county airport. Sandy Shoes featured a treasure hunt in honor of the new name that had been selected for the area: The Treasure Coast, so-named because of the sunken Spanish ships that were yielding treasure to explorers.

The following year the fair and festival only overlapped by a couple of days, with the county fair attendance hitting 38,000. After that, Sandy Shoes moved to January and stayed there.

By 1973, the festival was beginning to feel the pressure of a changing world.

In a Jan. 19, 1973, interview with the first co-chairmen of the festival, Florida Today reported that the 1957 festival drew fewer people because the population was smaller, but that the percentage of people who attended was higher.

“There was a tremendous interest then,” said W.G. Padrick Jr. in the article. “It becomes hard to generate that kind of interest now.” Padrick added that the 1957 festival wasn’t competing with TV and other events for the public’s attention. “Now other activities can divert attention from the Sandy Shoes events,” Padrick stated in the article, adding that it remained “the biggest thing here each year.”

What he may not have known was that the age of computers and the internet were lurking, ready to burst out the same year Sandy Shoes came to an end. So while television seemed like the attention-grabber that was slowly strangling attendance, it was nothing compared with what was on the horizon.

In an effort to spice up the event, the committee hired its first air show in 1973 and its second in 1975. But, a rainy weekend ruined the second one. It took two years to climb back out of debt. And then, when the city and county refused to continue funding it, the festival’s 20-year reign ended.

For the first 20 years, funding for Sandy Shoes came from the city and St. Lucie County.

It always struggled financially, according to Turner, who was a member of the organizing committee and served as treasurer for a few years. Some groups that came from outside of the county had to be paid and there were plenty of other expenses associated with putting on a festival that extended over weeks, and in 1961, for an entire month.

By 1977, it had become such a huge project operating on such little money that Turner says no one wanted to be president of the 1978 festival. The committee, which had long since incorporated and become a nonprofit association, found itself in debt. The debt was paid off, but the city and county withdrew funding, saying they simply couldn’t afford to keep subsidizing the festival.

“I’m the one that closed it down,” Turner says. “Everyone knew the financial situation. Nobody wanted to be president. So I said, ‘So we might as well just stop here,’ and no one objected.”

And with that, Sandy Shoes was no more.

What made it such a tremendous success that it drew thousands of people from all over the country to its events for 20 years?

Bush doesn’t hesitate. “It was everybody working together,” she says.

Her opinion in 2017 matches that of a 60-year-old editorial in the Feb. 18, 1957, The Fort Pierce News Tribune: “It was the communitywide enthusiasm, the pitching in of people of all ages and from all walks of life, that made it such a success.”

The editorial elaborated: “But we have never seen anything like the wide spread and united effort which has gone into making the Sandy Shoes Festival a success.” The newspaper expected the city to be “bursting at the seams” with visitors and cited the wide range of events as providing something for all interests. The writer noted that in the week leading up to the festival, the streets were already very crowded, fueling expectations of great success.

Today, Pam Gillette of Main Street Fort Pierce notes the similarity between the first Sandy Shoes and today. “We have a cooking component and a citrus component to show what we have here... the fishing and citrus industries... and the festival is held on our beautiful waterfront. This is what we want our northern visitors to experience. We want them to know why Fort Pierce is such a gem and such a nice place to visit.”

After the final festival in 1977, it rapidly became just a memory for the thousands who had attended, participated and enjoyed it. Looking in the rearview mirror, some said the concept of charging no fees did it in.

“Everyone was making money from the festival,” Bush says. “But from what I have been told, most weren’t sharing that money with the festival itself. When the county and city had to give up supporting it, there was no money to continue.”

But the memory of Sandy Shoes lingered in the minds of those who took part.

Twenty-five years later, in 2002, Sandy Shoes was resurrected following the city’s 2001 centennial celebration.

There was some similarity in the genesis of the first festival and its restoration so many years later. The original one started when the Chamber of Commerce decided it wanted more of what happened when the cattlemen hosted a ranch tour and parade — the rush and the excitement of experiencing the real Florida that most visitors never see.

The festival returned because Main Street Fort Pierce, whose job for years was revitalizing a downtown, saw what the city’s 100th anniversary celebration did to raise awareness of the city and bring visitors to the area.

Occurring over several days, the celebration featured fireworks, an art show, car show, other events and music. Of course the Cattlemen’s Parade was a featured event and it included the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales. It wasn’t hard to see the resemblance between the centennial and the defunct Sandy Shoes Festival.

The annual citrus squeeze-off

The annual citrus squeeze-off is one of the messiest competitions ever, but it’s great fun as competitors rush to produce as much juice as they can. PHOTO PROVIDED

“We did the (multi-day) centennial in 2001 and Main Street saw it was a good thing and wanted to keep it going,” Gillette says.

Sandy Shoes became the vehicle for that.

In 2002 when the new Sandy Shoes kicked off, the attendance was 3,000 to 5,000. It was good although nothing like the attendance 25 years before. But the festival had changed, from a week or two down to a single day. In its initial year in 1957, it continued for six days.

In 1961, it became a monthlong event. That was the year Cypress Gardens thrilled the crowd with its acrobatic water-ski shows and the Queen, a paddlewheel showboat, put on shows that included 75 entertainers. A music festival a week later featured the Indian River Symphony Orchestra and a steel band from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Sixty years later, Sandy Shoes lives on in a different world. The small rural city of about 20,000 has become a more urbanized city of 45,000. Agriculture no longer drives the economy as it once did, citrus diseases have hurt the groves and thousands of acres have been converted to homes and businesses.

While it may be a different world, today’s Sandy Shoes has its roots in its past. Agriculture is represented in the exuberant citrus squeeze-off, a wildly messy and lighthearted competition to see who can squeeze the most fruit into juice. The growing of food we put on our tables is embodied in the Iron Chef competition. Seafood dishes symbolize the fishing industry, a part of Fort Pierce’s economy since its earliest days.

In 2013, a seafood festival, Taste of the Sea, merged with Sandy Shoes, creating an irresistible draw and growing the attendance by leaps and bounds, Gillette says.

Although there are significant differences between then and now, there are still similarities. Where the early festivals were crammed full of events at various locations around the county, the single-day festival is likewise crammed, although it takes place in one location. The homespun folksy atmosphere is still there with the simple entertainment that is reminiscent of smaller, more rural communities.

With the festival’s 60th anniversary scheduled on March 18 of this year, Main Street saw an opportunity to make the new festival look a little more like the old one. Harking back to those early years when events were held over many days in many city locations, Sandy Shoes is being commemorated through tie-ins with more than 20 events hosted by other organizations. For example, the Cattlemen’s Parade, which was an outstanding feature in the old days, was held during the December Sights and Sounds holiday festival.

The Chamber of Commerce and the St. Lucie County Humane Society are commemorating Sandy Shoes during their barbecue contest Feb. 22 at the River Walk Center in Veterans Memorial Park. The Summerlin family ties in with its fish fry at Little Jim Bait and Tackle on Feb. 19. A pancake breakfast and a street party, also known as Friday Fest, will commemorate Sandy Shoes as well.

A major difference lies in the festival’s organization.

For the first 20 years, it was run by a committee that chose and oversaw the events. The committee incorporated as a nonprofit association for the sole purpose of producing the festival. Many local organizations sponsored the events making it truly a communitywide effort. An army of volunteers produced the rodeos, art shows, cooking contests, the surfing contests, the boat races, the ball tournaments, flower show, the outdoor play about the city’s history, all under the festival committee’s umbrella.

Today, Main Street Fort Pierce is the nonprofit in charge and all of the festival’s events will be at Veterans Memorial Park on North Indian River Drive. Sandy Shoes is just one of the many yearly events Main Street handles.

But no matter who is running the festival, everyone will agree that it will still have the hometown, folksy feeling it first showcased 60 years ago.

Sources: The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Fort Pierce News Tribune, Florida Today, Palm Beach Post, Wilmington Morning News, Wikipedia

How Sandy Shoes got its name

It’s common to say that once you get Florida sand in your shoes you’ll want to return. That made Sandy Shoes Festival a winner when organizers were looking for a name for their newly fledged festival 60 years ago. Gail McManus, 17, suggested it and later became the new festival’s first theme girl.

Bev Smith Automotive Group
Taste of the Sea & Sandy Shoes Seafood Festival

March 18
11am - Iron Chef Competition
1pm - Food Demonstrations
10am to 1pm - Chowder Cup Competition
2pm - Citrus Squeeze-off
3pm - Backus Museum Beard Contest
10am to 10pm - Seafood & Food vendors, Arts and Crafts, Kidzone, Blackbeard the Pirate

Music Lineup
10am - Fort Pierce Jazz & Blues Society
12pm - The Doo Wop Guys
2pm – Present Theme Girls
Announce Chowder Winners
2:30pm - Quick Fix
5pm - Felix Moss & the Easy People Band
8pm - Humdingers