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Volunteers, others have a hand in Poquoson Seafood Festival's success

Andrea Castillo
Volunteers, others have a hand in Poquoson Seafood Festival's success

Poquoson celebrates the 35th anniversary of its popular seafood festival this weekend, and organizers say reaching that milestone would not have been possible without the hard work of volunteers and others over the years.

"They're all unique, and we're grateful for their time," said Gretchen Gochenour, Poquoson's assistant director for community recreation.

From getting seafood vendors lined up to coordinating more than 160 artisans into the event, the following are some who put in countless hours, year-round in some cases, to prepare for the festival, which has drawn as many as 50,000 people in years past.

Gordon "Chet" McPherson

Visitors of the Poquoson Seafood Festival who stop by Gordon "Chet" McPherson's working watermen exhibit might get a glimpse of a hand-sized shark tooth, a petrified crab, Indian artifacts or any number of unusual things he's managed to fish out of the water over the years.

"You never known what you'll pull up," said McPherson, who grew up in Poquoson.

McPherson, who has been a waterman since the '70s or '80s, also will be conducting demonstrations with oyster dredges. Other watermen will be on hand to show off aspects of their work, such as making crab pots.

"It gets pretty interesting talking to people," he said. "A lot of people don't know how crab pots work, what we do. We explain to them how everything works."

The crab pots, oyster dredges and other tools are critical to the trade of local watermen, who scour local rivers for oysters, crab and fish.

Fewer people are choosing to work in the industry, but they do work that is important to the local economy, said McPherson's wife Michele.

"When these guys work the water, they're putting food on the table, not just for our families, but other people's families too," she said.

Andrea Forrest and Alice Nell Firth

For Andrea Forrest, involvement in the Poquoson Seafood Festival is a family effort.

Forrest, currently the festival's arts and crafts coordinator, took on the role in 2007 after her mother stepped down after about 10 years.

"My mom was very good at it, so I had a good teacher," she said.

Today Forrest oversees about 160 arts and crafts vendors that includes furniture makers, sculptors and metal workers, as well as artisans who make fire pits, among others.

Her mother, Alice Nell Firth, continues her involvement with the festival as an arts vendor, selling her paintings, often seascapes, on furniture and wood.

Firth said she's been involved with the festival in some form for 31 of the 35 years it's been around.

In that time, "we've gotten so much bigger," said Firth, adding there were only about 35 arts and crafts vendors in the early days.

Two of Forrest's sons are also helping with parking.

While the job of arts and crafts coordinator is a part-time position with the Poquoson Arts League, it requires a year-round effort, and seeing things come together for the festival is rewarding, Forrest said.

"It's wonderful. It's amazing how it comes together," said Forrest, who started volunteering for the festival first in 2000. "You can't see it and touch it and feel it until you get there."

The festival also serves as a tribute to working watermen like her grandfather, who worked until he was 90.

"It's very important to me, because it is a dying industry," Forrest said. "It's important for me to know the heritage and history of Poquoson."

Sandy May

In the midst of a festival filled with fried fish, funnel cakes and barbecue, Sandy May, who oversees the festival's food and commercial vendors, doesn't time to each much of it, saying keeping up with the 22 food vendors there keeps her plenty busy.

"I'm running on energy and adrenaline," she said.

May, a retired registered dietitian, is in her 18th year in charge of the vendors, a volunteer role which takes up most of her year. By June, she had chosen nearly all of the vendors for the event.

Once the festival is underway, she said she's looking forward to the seafood and some nice weather.

"It's a way of showing off Poquoson and our waterways and coastal heritage," she said of staying involved year after year. "We love our town."

Diane Holloway

As the Poquoson Seafood Festival's heritage waterman coordinator, volunteer Diane Holloway is doing her part to keep history alive.

Holloway helps bring in watermen like McPherson who tell visitors about what they do and demonstrate how to make crab pots and other items the watermen use in their day-to-day work.

"They're proud of where they come from," she said. "We just want to keep that alive as long as we can."

Holloway is also coordinating a demonstration by the Virginia Museum of Natural History about the Chesapeake Bay watershed and keeping the bay clean, as well as others by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Jefferson Lab.

Holloway has her own history of involvement with community events in Poquoson outside of the festival.

She serves as the president of the Poquoson Museum and is also part of the city fire department's ladies' auxiliary group. Her husband Robert is Poquoson's fire chief.

"Any time I can give time, I do what I can," she said.

Charlie Gatz

Good weather can be a double-edged sword for the festival's volunteer parking coordinator Charlie Gatz.

"This weekend is a piece of cake for the weather, but that will bring more people perhaps, which will be tough for parking," he said, adding that festival traffic can back up all the way to Victory Boulevard.

But he and several groups taking care of the event's parking at Poquoson High School are up to the task.

"Anywhere we can possibly stick a car, we put one, so it's quite a challenge," said Gatz, who also serves on the city's parks and recreation advisory board.

Gatz took over the festival's parking about 20 years ago and enlists the help of local groups to help park the cars. This year the money from parking proceeds will go to two high school teams and two civic organizations in Poquoson.

"I have been here since the first seafood festival, and I like to be a part of it, so this is a little way I can do that."

Castillo can be reached by phone at 757-247-4635.

Want to go?

What: Poquoson Seafood Festival

When: 5-10 p.m. Friday

10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday

12:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Poquoson Municipal Park, 830 Poquoson Ave., Poquoson

Free admission; $5 parking fee

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