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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Berry sweet anticipation

HOLLIS – The annual Hollis Strawberry Festival, sponsored by the Hollis Woman’s Club and the Hollis Town Band, will be held from 2-4 p.m. Sunday in Monument Square. For the hundreds who attend, it is an afternoon filled with community spirit, music and, of course, tasty desserts made with local strawberries.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Hollis Strawberry Festival is not hosted by the town of Hollis. The festival was started in 1946 by the Hollis Town Band, who ran it by themselves for many years before joining forces with the HWC in 1978. They have shared duties and proceeds since then. The two organizations also cosponsor the Apple Festival in October. ...

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HOLLIS – The annual Hollis Strawberry Festival, sponsored by the Hollis Woman’s Club and the Hollis Town Band, will be held from 2-4 p.m. Sunday in Monument Square. For the hundreds who attend, it is an afternoon filled with community spirit, music and, of course, tasty desserts made with local strawberries.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Hollis Strawberry Festival is not hosted by the town of Hollis. The festival was started in 1946 by the Hollis Town Band, who ran it by themselves for many years before joining forces with the HWC in 1978. They have shared duties and proceeds since then. The two organizations also cosponsor the Apple Festival in October.

Some folks may think holding the festival involves little more than baking shortcakes and scooping ice cream while the band plays, but that is far from accurate. So, exactly what does it take to put on this celebration that the town is well-known for?

Six months in advance

“We actually start planning it in January,” said Lori Dwyer, treasurer of the HWC and chairwoman of this year’s festival. “We have to get permits and approval from police, the fire department and the board of selectmen. We have to reserve the middle school in case it rains.”

Committee members prepare publicity and posters, and business and corporate donors are sought. An auction is held at the HWC luncheon in May, and those funds are what enable the group to purchase the strawberries for the festival in the first place. The order is divided evenly between Lull Farm and Brookdale Fruit Farm in Hollis, who allow the club to purchase the fruit at wholesale prices. Dwyer said it costs more than $3,000 just to hold the festival.

“Brookdale and Lull Farm give us a really good discount, but berries are dear in price,” Dwyer continued. “We also have to pay for police detail and the custodian so we can use the restrooms in Town Hall.”

Dwyer said she has been studying the amount of food prepared and how much is left at the end, and has recalculated the quantities to be ordered this year to minimize the number of unsold desserts and maximize profits.

Meanwhile, the band rehearses throughout the year, according to music director David Bailey, and starts rehearsing festival music simultaneously with their Pops concert music until April, when they switch gears and focus exclusively on the festival concert. The program has to be planned and soloists have to be auditioned, and sometimes new music must be ordered.

Any changes to the dessert menu must also be planned ahead of time, with the challenge of knowing what is in season by the festival date, and trying to forecast what will be popular.

“Last year, we experimented with strawberry rhubarb crisp,” Dwyer said. “We made a small amount and it sold out within a half hour.”

Needless to say, the crisp will be back on the menu this year, and in larger
quantities. The recipe needed to be adjusted, however, since it was written for a hotel restaurant with commercial equipment, but is being baked in 9-by-13 inch pans in regular household ovens.

Another new item from last year that will be returning is strawberry ice cream. All the ice cream served at the festival is from Doc Davis in Pepperell, Mass.

Almost festival time

All the items served at the festival must be purchased in advance: Ice cream, heavy cream, rhubarb, bottled water, and other ingredients, as well as plates, napkins, spoons and any other items for serving. Plus the stars – the strawberries themselves.

“We are going to have a great strawberry season this year, just a little later because of the cool spring,” said Chip Hardy, vice president of Brookdale Fruit Farm. “We have a good quality crop, no frost or setbacks.”

Kristen Bennett, manager at Lull Farm, also made a similar assessment.

“It was a little dry, but the recent rain has helped,” she said. “It’s a beautiful crop, far better than last year.”

A hulling party is held at the Congregational Church of Hollis on Friday of festival weekend when the berries are picked up. Anywhere from 30 to 50 volunteers assist with preparing the berries for being served, whether on top of shortcake or with ice cream. Dwyer also has enlisted 14 people to bake the shortcake biscuits.

“This festival is put on by many communities within our community, even the business community,” Dwyer said. “It isn’t just the Hollis Woman’s Club or the Hollis Town Band, but others that make it happen.”

Festival Day

The day of the festival is certainly busy, with all hands on deck for the big event. Bailey and the rest of the band members begin to arrive at noon to help with the logistics. A volunteer drives the trailer that holds the tent, tables and chairs for the festival. While some band members set those items up on Monument Square, others unload and set up the tables and chairs that the audience will sit on to eat their desserts. Instruments are retrieved from Town Hall, and the musicians help bring out chairs from the church to sit on while they perform. They also put the trash cans out and take care of disposal after the festival.

Inside the church, Dwyer expects to have eight volunteers who will place individual portions of strawberry shortcake, strawberry rhubarb crisp or ice cream with strawberries on plates or in bowls. More than a dozen teenagers from Hollis Brookline First Robotics and Destination Imagination will work as the runners, bringing the servings out to the 35 volunteers in the outdoor tent, who will add toppings and serve the desserts to the customers. Six cashiers will be on hand to collect money.

Dwyer said a few improvements have been made to the production and assembly process this year, thanks to suggestions made by new HWC members Claire Helfman and Kat McGhee. Guests should see more uniform portions and spend less time in line if the changes produce the desired effect.

At 2 p.m., the band will begin performing its free concert. After playing for about an hour, the musicians will take a well-deserved intermission to enjoy some dessert before the music continues for the second hour.

At the end of the festival, all the tables, chairs, tents and instruments must be put back where they belong, the trash collected and held until the landfill reopens on Tuesday, and folks go home tired by satisfied by a job well done.

Where the proceeds go

According to Dwyer, the Strawberry Festival typically raises between $6,000 and $8,000, depending on weather. Each year the HWC awards three $1,000 scholarships: to a Hollis Brookline High School graduate who will be attending a four-year college, a two-year college, and one alternative scholarship to a woman who is returning to school.

In addition, the club donates to numerous charities such as Girls Inc., Harbor Homes, the Boys & Girls Club, and the Nashua Soup Kitchen, to name a few, as well as donating to the Hollis Social Library, the Congregational Church of Hollis, the Hollis Firemen’s Association and Hollis Brookline First Robotics.

Last year’s gift of $500 to the arts and music programs at Hollis Brookline High School was used to purchase costumes for the theater company and a concert by a guest jazz performer. Dwyer said the club is also adding a budget line for the Hollis Brookline Middle School.

The band uses their half of the proceeds to buy and maintain instruments, equipment, new music and ongoing expenses such as royalty fees, renting rehearsal space and registering equipment trailers so they can get to performances. Scholarships are awarded each year to band members who will be attending music schools or camps during the summer, and for students who are departing for college in the fall.

“There are very expensive instruments that many people can’t afford to own, but which help the band sound great, such as bassoons, tubas and the multitude of percussion instruments the band uses,” Bailey said. “The band tries to buy those so people will be able to play them. That way, if the person decides to drop out of the band for any reason, the band has the instrument to pass on to another player.”

A major expense is the cost of music – with 14-20 songs in a concert like the Strawberry Festival, it would cost more than $1,500 to buy new music, so the band relies on a mix of new and old repertoire to perform.

“One single piece of band music costs anywhere from $75-$150,” Bailey said. “The Hollis Town Band has a very large library it owns, but it is always looking to buy new music to keep up with the latest movies, Broadway hits, and pop/jazz arrangements.”

Other equipment the band invests in is the tables, chairs, the tent the desserts are sold under, and a trailer to store them all safely and to transport them to the festivals. Over the past few years, the band has invested more than $7,000 just in equipment for the festivals, equipment the band itself never uses, but Bailey said is happy to have purchased so the festivals can be a big success.

Irene Labombarde can be reached at ilabombarde@nashuatelegraph.com or 471-1867.