By Mac Cerullo
---- — Every year around the first day of summer, roughly 20 women from Amesbury’s Main Street Congregational Church gather together, snap on some plastic gloves and start preparing for the church’s annual Strawberry Festival.
For decades, the ladies have hulled thousands of strawberries for the festival, which can then be used to make shortcake, smoothies or simply sold as is. Thanks to their efforts, the festival has remained one of the most popular and longest-running events of Amesbury Days, itself one of the oldest cultural institutions that Amesbury has to offer.
Amesbury Days originally began in 1899 as a single-day event run by local factories for their employees. Since then, it has grown into a massive summer celebration. The festival typically kicks off with the Chamber of Commerce’s annual Block Party and wraps up with the Fourth of July fireworks show.
This year will see some changes to Amesbury Days, the most notable being that the festivities will be held over a single weekend, as opposed to spread out like in years past.
Mayor Thatcher Kezer, whose office has taken over the organizing responsibilities this year, said the goal of condensing the festivities was to create more of a celebratory atmosphere by putting on quality events every day to drive more foot traffic and create a critical mass of people and activity in town.
For instance, tomorrow night, the city will hold its annual Brewfest in the City Hall parking lot, and at the same time, there will be a series of musical performances in the Upper Millyard Amphitheater.
Then on Saturday, the farmers market and Strawberry Festival will be held simultaneously in the municipal parking lots surrounding City Hall and the library, along with a variety of sidewalk sales, the Art Expo and the Community-Wide Yard Sale.
Originally, there were also plans to hold a new “Sadie Hawkins” Road Race that would culminate at the farmers market. But organizers decided to hold off on that until November, when Sadie Hawkins Day, a creation of Amesbury comic strip artist Al Capp, is typically celebrated.
At its core, Amesbury Days is a celebration of community pride and a time when locals of all stripes can come together. That sense of togetherness is the main reason why volunteers like the “Strawberry Ladies” keep coming back, and why a few have been helping for nearly 40 years.
“Part of it is working with the rest of the women, having that camaraderie,” said Bertina Lawliss, who is 83 and has been helping hull strawberries for the Main Street Congregational Church since the early 1970s.
Gladys Turnquist, who at 99 is the elder statesman of the Strawberry Ladies, agreed with Lawliss, saying she first started helping because she wanted to get involved with her church and has kept coming back since because she loves the company. She also joked that getting to eat some of the strawberries is a nice bonus, too.
On Tuesday, both Lawliss and Turnquist were back again with the rest of their friends, each with their sleeves pulled up and an ever-growing pile of fresh fruit on the table in front of them. Others just like them surrounded them at the two tables. Throughout the morning, they all laughed, told stories and reminisced about the days they used to actually go up to New Hampshire and pick the strawberries.
“There was a gentleman who drove a pickup trick, and some kids would pile up into the back of the truck, you can’t really do that anymore,” Lawliss said. “They’d drive to New Hampshire, we’d follow in cars, and when we got there, we’d fill the whole truck bed with strawberries.”
Turnquist said they used to start at 5 or 6 in the morning back then. But while a lot has changed over the years, the desire that people have to help out and celebrate the community has not.
“It’s just wonderful to see so many people working together for a common cause,” Turnquist said.
Amesbury Days schedule
Senior Citizens Annual Cookout, noon to 2 p.m., Nicholas J. Costello Transportation Center, 68 Elm St. $7.
15th annual Block Party, 5:30 to 8 p.m., Main Street.
Amesbury Art Expo, all day, City Hall auditorium.
Kids’ Day in the Park, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Town Park, Highland Street.
“A Princess Pirate Panto,” presented by Theater in the Open, 4 to 5 p.m., Millyard amphitheater.
Kids’ Night in the Millyard, 5 to 7 p.m., Millyard.
Fourth annual Amesbury Brewfest, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., Town Hall parking lot, Friend Street. $35 in advance, $40 at the door.
Studio Two: A Tribute to The Beatles, 7:30 to 9 p.m., Millyard amphitheater.
Amesbury Art Expo, all day, City Hall auditorium.
Downtown Summer Bazaar and Sidewalk Sales, all day, Millyard and downtown.
Community-Wide Yard Sale, 8 a.m. to noon, dozens of households throughout Amesbury. Rain date Sunday.
Farmers market, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., City Hall parking lot, 62 Friend St.
Annual Strawberry Festival, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., parking lot behind the Amesbury Public Library, Main Street.
Amesbury Treasures, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., 16 historic sites open around town.
EJ Ouellette and Crazy Maggy perform, 6 to 7 p.m., Millyard amphitheater.
Third annual Team New England United Metric Century Ride, 8 to 10 a.m., Market Square. $20 donation to ride.
Old Fashioned Car Show, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Market Square rotary and the Millyard.
Pancakes in the Pines, 7 to 11 a.m., Town Park. $4.
Root 150 performs, 7 to 9 p.m., Woodsom Farm.
Fireworks, sunset, Woodsom Farm.
For more information, visit www.amesburydays.org.