News Column

For the love of George: Washington festival is this weekend in Eustis

February 27, 2014

By Tod Caviness, Orlando Sentinel



Feb. 27--We have an uneasy relationship with change. In the wake of devastating hurricanes and theme-park developments, the landscape of the Sunshine State has shifted dramatically from one generation to the next.

And yet, community endures. For proof look no farther than the normally quiet shores of Lake Eustis, the site of this weekend's Georgefest, one of the oldest festivals to celebrate the birth of George Washington.

Why all the enduring fervor for our founding father? Washington was born in Virginia, after all, and his travels through the fledgling United States never took him south of Georgia.

A visit to Eustis tells you all you need to know. The bond between residents of this small Lake County city is stickier than a slice of apple pie and just as all-American.

Just ask Eustis native Penny Jenness.

The daughter of a mailman and a cocktail waitress, Jenness rode a church-sponsored float in the Georgefest parade in 1962, the year she was born. It was her first appearance of many: Whether twirling a baton, playing in her high-school band or riding in her bright red Model A Ford, she has long been a fixture at the festival. Today with her husband, Kevin, she owns The Peddler's Wagon, a home decor and gift shop not far from the parade route.

"Through the years, we could have gone absolutely anywhere we wanted, and we stuck with Eustis," says Penny Jenness. "It's got a great heart and soul. It's a wonderful, wonderful little town. We don't have all the bells and whistles that a lot of the towns around us might have, but we have heart and soul. I can travel the world and I always come back to Eustis."

This weekend's festival marks the 112th year for Georgefest, which began in 1902 at the Ocklawaha Hotel in Eustis. Originally a single day, Feb. 22, the event celebrated the expansion of the hotel as much as the birth of the country's first president. But even in that first year, revelers welcomed visitors to Eustis by dressing in patriotic garb.

The hotel is long gone, destroyed in a 1923 blaze, but the traditions remain. Through the years, the festival has morphed from Washington's Birthday Celebration to simply Georgefest, the oldest continuously running festival in Florida and only the second-oldest celebration of Washington's birthday in the nation. (Laredo, Texas, had the first, in 1898.)

More than 20,000 people attended last year's festival, says Christie Bobbitt, the executive director of the Lake Eustis Area Chamber of Commerce. And she's expecting a big crowd this year, too.

"We get visitors from Canada, we get visitors from England," says Bobbitt. "People that are here on holiday will come in to visit. I was talking to one of my friends and they have family from Alabama and Vermont that are coming down."

During the celebration, revelers can see much more than the parade that winds down Bay Street through the historic downtown district. They can hop aboard carnival rides, hear live music and sample the goods in a cupcake and pie-baking contest.

It's the kind of fuss that might make stoic old George Washington himself crack a smile, a reminder that the small-town spirit endures even in a state as changeable as Florida.

"My grandfather used to tell me how he would go to the church pie social or something, and I think that's where he met my grandmother," says Bobbitt. "That's the kind of feeling you get when you go to this. It makes you feel good about being in the community."

tcaviness@tribune.com or 407-420-5677

112th Georgefest

When: 5-10 p.m. Friday, 9:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 28-March 2)

Where: Ferran Park and the Historic Downtown District in Eustis

Cost: Free

Call: 352-357-3434

Online: eustischamber.org

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(c)2014 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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Source: Orlando Sentinel (FL)


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