Between 1836 and 1936, Georgia held the title as the top sweet potato-producing state in the U.S., and the vegetable still has a close association with the state. This comes alive each year with the staging of the Georgia Sweet Potato Festival in Ocilla. Boasting a parade, beauty pageant and other events, this celebration has now run for more than 50 years.
The history of the Sweet Potato Parade and Festival in Ocilla has its roots in the formation of the Georgia Sweet Potato Improvement Association. Founded in 1960 as the official organization to represent Georgia sweet potato growers, the association became the driving force in efforts to stage a sweet potato festival. These efforts came to fruition in November 1961, with Ocilla in Irwin County staging the very first festival. Ocilla put on such a successful show that it became the permanent home of the event, and the festival remains one of the biggest annual celebrations in the city.
The Sweet Potato Parade takes place on the last Saturday of October each year, and anyone with an interest in taking part may do so. The opportunity to participate remains open until around the first week in October each year, with both individuals and organizations welcome to apply. The parade typically features motorbikes, cars, trucks, tractors, horse-drawn carriages and floats decorated in the theme of the year. Marching bands, dancers and other performers also take part. For anyone interested in spectating, the fun generally kicks-off around 11 a.m., with the parade usually passing along Irwin Avenue, Fourth Street and Apple Street.
The festival provides an opportunity for girls to enter a beauty pageant, with the winners becoming Georgia Sweet Potato Queens for the year. Titles come in six different age divisions, from Baby (1- to 3-year-old), to Miss, (17- to 23-year-old). Winners typically take part in the parade, riding a float and celebrating their success.
Budding chefs display their expertise at preparing sweet potato delicacies in the festival cooking contest. Participants may enter in a few categories, with some of these including pies, candied sweet potatoes and cakes. The contest involves junior (under age 18) and senior (age 18 and up) divisions, with prizes awarded to the best three entries in each category.
Sweet Potato Motorcyle Rally
The Sweet Potato Motorcycle Rally runs for a three-day period at the end of October, scheduled to coincide with the parade. Those attending the rally participate in the parade and other activities during the three days, include tours of the Ocilla area, a bike decorating contest and a toy drive.
Another event taking place on the day of the parade is an arts and crafts show. Those interested in displaying their homemade food and non-food wares rent a booth and set up to show items to visitors. For those interested in classic automobiles, an antique car show has some impressive cars, trucks and tractors on display, and the Tator Trot contest involves a 5 km road race and 1 mile walk and run.
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