WASHINGTON — Behind the drinks table at the Washington Fire Department, Mildred Melgard kept watch over the activity unfolding in front of her.
To her right, along the back wall of the fire station, families lined up to choose what they wanted for lunch — hamburgers, lobster rolls or peanut butter and strawberry jelly and strawberry desserts —and to her left, along the side wall were the condiment table, the craft tables and the Gardenia Band.
Anyone who wanted a drink at the Washington Strawberry Festival had to stop by and see Melgard. From her vantage point in the corner, she greeted friends and neighbors while dispensing cans of Moxie, Fanta strawberry soda and the usual suspects such as Sprite, iced tea and water from the cooler next to her, giving them a fast wipe with a towel before handing them off.
And she laughed off her newfound celebrity; she and Ladies Guild President Mindy Gould had been interviewed by News Center Maine the day before about the effect of the delayed strawberry season on the annual town festival.
“I got home just in time to see it,” one woman said. “I DVR’d it!”
Because of the cool, wet spring, strawberry-related activities in Maine have been delayed or canceled because the berries haven’t been ready. But that wasn’t going to stop the Washington Ladies Guild.
“We weren’t going to cancel it,” Melgard said. “No way were we canceling.”
The Strawberry Festival is the group’s biggest fundraising event. Whatever they clear is distributed to nonprofit organizations in town, such as the Parent Teacher Organization, the Evening Star Grange, the food pantry, the Fire Department and the community church, among others.
Gould said they called around to everyone they could think of to find strawberries that were ready. Normally, they have no problem finding them at the 10 or so farms in and around Washington to pick themselves.
“We have a great contact at Fresh off the Farm in Rockport, and they single-handedly saved the festival because of their contact and the generous, generous deal they made with us to be able to afford to buy their picked strawberries so that we could afford them and still have 80 quarts of strawberries for our festival. They made nothing off of us,” she said.
But Gould is spreading the goodwill by sharing the farm’s name wherever she can. And on Saturday, she was pleased with both the turnout and continuing the long-standing town event.
“With all the stressful (things) and negativity, it’s nice to decompress in a small town with a small-town event,” Gould said. “We talk to each other, and we look at each other and very few people here have screens out. It’s just simple, but it is so healthy for people.”
Before passing the torch a couple of years ago, Melgard headed up the Washington Ladies Guild.
For more than 100 years, guild members have gotten together to raise funds for town organizations, selling things such as fudge and hand-knitted items. Their first success was funding the installation of electric lights in the Washington Village Church.
The Strawberry Festival came along later; for 72 years straight, Washington residents have celebrated the start of the summer with the festival, first on the lawn at the church, then at the school, before landing on the fire station permanently. While it’s not as pretty, it’s out of the sun and it’s handicapped-accessible. And they never have to cancel because of rain.
“Every year there was question, is it going to rain?” she said. “Because we’d bring all the tables and chairs to the church and had to load them up and bring them back, and it was really a pain in the patootie.”
Gould’s involvement in the Strawberry Festival started in 2011. That year, Washington’s bicentennial, the town went all out with a parade and a bicentennial day. The Ladies Guild decided to have a strawberry princess to get in on the celebration.
“That’s how I met Mildred,” Gould said, explaining that Melgard telephoned to let her know that Gould’s daughter Antyna had been selected as princess.
A couple of years ago, Melgard and the Ladies Guild considered discontinuing the festival. As with many such organizations across Maine, its members were getting older and tired. That’s when Gould and her friends stepped up.
“We were very fortunate. I had knee surgery, and I just can’t do it. Another one had a heart attack,” she said. “They are taking over. They are doing a fantastic job.”
“It’s too cool of a tradition to have it end — not just the strawberry festival, but what they do for the community,” Gould said.
The Ladies Guild now has 16 to 18 members, all women, to continue its work.
“All the husbands are volun-told,” Gould said, laughing.
Gould said there has been a balancing act between honoring what’s come before with some additions and changes. The Gardenia band, made up of Washington residents, who play for free, is new. The craft table, where Gould’s mother was helping out, is also new.
The festival also features lawn games and activities for children.
Gould said about 125 people were expected to be served between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday, but because of the television news story, the final number might have been higher. Despite the planning that’s gone on all year, volunteers had to buy more burgers and drinks to meet the demand midway through the event.
“We just love it,” she said, pausing to say hello to a boy who stopped to get a drink.
“I hope it lasts forever. I love seeing what goes on. People who don’t live here are here. People who live here are here,” she said.