Decades of queens remember Peach Festivals of yesterday

We caught up with former Winona Peach Festival queens to find out where they are now. Most of them are still at the festival.

The Winona Peach Festival turned 50 this year, and many of its former queens still go every year

"When I won, I was given material and a pattern and told to make a dress," said Miriam deWildt, centre. Her friend's mother made the dress for her. (Miriam deWildt)

You have to be well spoken, female, a Hamilton resident, a volunteer, and willing to deliver a bushel basket full of peaches to Queen's Park. It also helps if your wave is on point.

That's the criteria to be a Winona Peach Festival queen, an honour bestowed every year since 1967. This weekend, the tradition turns 50.

Each year, the festival's 19 member organizations put forward candidates for the crown, and nominees choreograph a dance for the annual peach gala. The winner represents the festival at numerous parades, events and interviews. 

We talked to some peach royalty past and present. Here's what they had to say.

Brenda Johnson, 1977 — Runner up (sort of)

Brenda Johnson, who was also accidentally Miss Canada Flag Day, now runs the youth grounds crew for the festival. She's also a city councillor. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Johnson has never actually won the queen title — or any other pageant title, for that matter — but on festival parade day, she ended up not only as peach royalty, but as Miss Canada Flag Day too.

Johnson was 15-year-old Brenda Neville then, and a coach at the local figure skating club. The club president called her. "They're having a pageant," he said. "We want you to represent us."

Johnson — then a five-night-a-week basketball player — wasn't interested in pageants, but shrugged and did it anyway. She didn't win, and that was fine with her. Then a week later, she said, the festival president called her.

Brenda Johnson was fourth place, but the third runner up quit and she took her place. Then she ended up being Miss Canada Flag Day in a parade too. She has only this blurry photo of her experience. (Brenda Johnson)

The runner up, hurt that she hadn't won the title, stepped down. Johnson had come fourth. Would she fill in the runner up role? They gave Johnson's mother a pattern and some peach-coloured material to make a dress, and told her to show up for the parade.

Johnson arrived, and an organizer grabbed her. Miss Canada Flag Day hadn't shown up, and someone had to ride in the Triumph TR7.

In her peach gown, Johnson climbed into the vehicle marked "Miss Canada Flag Day," waving at confused friends and family. 

Johnson went on to be an educator and work for Environment Hamilton. Now she's a Hamilton city councillor representing Ward 11, which includes Winona. She also works as a festival "grounds mom" supervising young volunteers.

She has the unique distinction of having carried out all the duties of peach festival royalty — and then some — and "I actually never won a thing."

Maya Waring, 2017 — Queen

Maya Waring, centre, is this year's peach festival queen. Ramnik Chudha and Jaslyn Drage Ozimok are princesses. (Winona Peach Festival)

"It was really cool. Awesome. Whatever adjective you want to use," says Maya Waring of winning this year.

Waring, 15, represented the Bob Kemp Hospice, where she volunteers. She entered because she wanted new friends and experiences, and she got them.

The contenders met several times to get to know each other, and rehearse this year's dance routine to Meghan Trainor's Better When I'm Dancing.

She's attended the festival her whole life. "One major memory I have is when I was seven or eight, my dad took me on 1001 Nachts," she said. "I'm really not good with rides."

Her main lesson from the pageant, she said, is "no matter how old you are, you can do what you want, or be what you want."

Georgina Beattie, 1967 — Runner up (then known as a lady in waiting)

Georgina Beattie, second from right, was a lady in waiting in 1967. Johanna Van Essen, far left, was the first peach queen. They wore period clothing because the first peach festival celebrated Canada's centennial. (Winona Peach Festival)

Beattie was one of two ladies in waiting who served with queen Johanna Van Essen the first year of the festival.

West Lincoln Orchards sponsored Beattie, then known as Georgina Smith. There were about 18 contenders for the crown, which was then known as Blossom Queen.

Beattie, the festival's current corresponding secretary, doesn't know why organizers thought there should be a queen.

"We had the most amazing group of mostly men who were movers and shakers for these events. I can just imagine them sitting in rooms coming up with these ideas."

Georgina Beattie says the competition has always been about community service and public speaking. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Year one brought many duties. The girls traveled to Albany to invite the state governor to the festival. Van Essen threw out the first pitch at a Buffalo Bisons game. They also started an annual tradition — traveling to Queen's Park with peaches.

First year participants wore period clothes, since the festival celebrated Canada's centennial. Most sewed their own. Beattie still has hers. 

She went on to teach and take over her father's business, Winona Gardens. She was also a Stoney Creek councillor.

Miriam deWildt, 1977 — Queen

Miriam deWildt is a former peach queen who now provides the grand prize vehicle for the festival every year. She's also judged the contest. (Miriam deWildt)

DeWildt was 17 when she represented her soccer league in the pageant and won. Her duties were numerous, from riding in parades to tearing ticket stubs for hours.

"I'm one of those people where you win and you're happy, but you feel like 'why did I win and not someone else?'" she said.

People still bring up her time as queen. Sometimes, they mail her old articles. DeWildt helps run her family's Chrysler dealership now, which provides a vehicle as a festival grand prize very year.

She's been a judge at subsequent pageants, and that's hard. She wishes everybody who put their name forward could win.

"There are times when I look back and think 'How could I have done that?'" she said. "It just makes me smile."

Lori Wilson Summers, 1991 — Queen

Lori Wilson Summers, centre, was the 1991 peach queen. (Winona Peach Festival)

Like most peach queens, Lori Wilson Summers grew up going to the festival, and still goes every year.

"It was the last big hurrah weekend before you went back to school," she said. "You'd do that thing where everybody meets at the midway, and you try all the different foods.

"You see people you know. You buy tickets hoping to win the car. It was getting to see everyone and a sense of being part of that area."

Wilson Summers, who was 18 at the time, represented the local Lion's Club. She recalls coordinating outfits and accessories with the princesses, and being in the festival dunk tank.

She now works at a credit union and also sells travel packages. She walks through the festival each year, she said, and recognizes other peach pageant alumni.

"Even now," she said, "it has a slightly different meaning to me."