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Yoakum festival keeps tomato heritage alive

By JJ VELASQUEZ
June 5, 2010 at 1:05 a.m.

Above: Matthew Gomez, of Yoakum, cooks ribs at the Tom Tom Festival for one of the many food contests. Gomez is the head chef at G-N-G's BBQ and often participates in the food contests.

ABOUT WHITE TIGERS

The royal white tiger has been extinct in the wild since 1958.

The first white tiger came to the United States as a gift to President Dwight Eisenhower in 1961.

There are about 40 white tigers on exhibit in the large accredited zoos in the United States.

SOURCE: Zoo Dynamics

YOAKUM - It was the year of the tiger at Tom Tom Festival Saturday - the year of the white tigers, that is.

And Gilbert Benavides had a front-row seat to see two white tiger cubs at the city park grounds.

"It was way different to see them live than on TV," said Benavides, a Victoria native who made his first trip to the annual celebration of the tomato industry in Yoakum.

While the tomato industry is now a bygone part of the Land of Leather's economy, people came together for the tomato-honoring event that began 82 years ago.

Leather is the city's other main industry.

The festival drew people from Houston, San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Austin to the Land of Leather, said Bill Lopez, president of the Yoakum Area Chamber of Commerce.

"We brought a lot of people into town," Lopez said. "The better the festival, the more we can do for our community."

Though, the tomato aspect of the festival has diminished about as much as the tomato industry has in Yoakum.

There were no tomato vendors at this year's event, but it continues to carry the Tom Tom moniker in the name of tradition, Lopez said.

In 1928, a few acres of tomatoes were planted as the city was seeking a boost with the leather and railroad industries both struggling.

A few years later, the town shipped 300 boxcar-loads of green ripe tomatoes to the East Coast, where demand was high, said Lopez.

Since then, markets in the eastern U.S. have begun growing their own, and the tomato industry in Yoakum vanished.

This year, Land of Leather Festival was done away with, but only in name. The festivities were combined with Tom Tom Festival, making it the biggest festival in the Yoakum area, Lopez said.

Nicole Vickers has set up shop at Tom Tom Festival for nine consecutive years. She runs Texas Best Snowballs as a part-time business.

The Brazoria native travels two hours with her husband and sons, who help with the snow cone making, to the yearly festival.

"We love it," she said, after having served customers in the 90-degree heat. "It's a nice little community. People are great and friendly."

Carl O'Neill said the biggest draw is usually the dance, which often boasts up-and-coming Texas artists as headliners.

Kyle Park sold out a show a couple weeks ago in College Station, said O'Neill.

He was Tom Tom's headliner this year.

"He must be a pretty good draw," O'Neill said hours before the dance.

Lopez said the festival is "a good gathering for people to come once a year."

He hopes that, although the tomato's presence in the festival disappears, the younger generations continue to carry the torch for Tom Tom Festival.

"We'd like to see those young people keep this festival going as long as we possibly can," he said.

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