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Pioneer Days

A Look Back to its “Cracker Days” Roots

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Arts and crafts. Food booths. Parade. Fireworks. They all celebrate Pioneer Days, Deerfield Beach’s oldest and largest annual event. But it didn’t always have this name, nor was it this big. In the beginning, it was a simple affair, a modest barbecue sponsored by the Lions Club.

As the first charted civic organization in Deerfield Beach in 1947, the Lions Club held barbecues every four to six weeks to raise money for civic improvements and to help the needy. Their first community project was to clear scrub oak, palmetto and undergrowth from city land that had been donated by W.L. Kester (who built the Kester cottages) many years earlier.

Barney Chalker, Charter President of the Lions Club, wrote: “Our first Lions project was to clear this land and build a public city park for ball games and other sports activities where we and our children would have a place to play. Our city government was in a bad way financially, and like most of us had no money, so the Lions Club took over the job by designating certain days as work days on the park. We would all meet and join hands in doing the actual work of clearing the ground and building the park. Working together in the old pioneer spirit, you would be surprised what can be accomplished when a few fellows unite and work for a common cause, regardless of whether they have a lot of money to spend or not. . .”

A ball field emerged from the Lions’ efforts in 1948. A dedication followed, and the improved land was eventually called Pioneer Park in honor of Deerfield Beach’s early pioneers. The first formal celebration at the new park was held in 1949. Called “Cracker Day,” it marked the end of the spring harvest in Deerfield Beach’s predominately agrarian community and raised money for Lions Club philanthropic endeavors.

The name “Cracker Day” was coined by Lion J.B. Wiles, an early pioneer farmer and Deerfield Beach resident after whom Wiles Road was named. The event name honored early Florida pioneers who were endearingly called “Florida Crackers” (see sidebar) and the event was so popular it became an annual event.

Barbeque chicken and ribs were served along with corn on the cob and myriad side dishes. The fire pit was started days in advance; the ribs smoked for hours. Ed Dietrich, a second generation Deerfield resident and former owner of Deerfield Builders Supply, said that the whole community looked forward to Cracker Day. One of his memorable recollections is of the delicious barbeque aroma wafting on the breeze.

“For three or four days before the event, all we smelled at my house was barbeque,” he said.

Janice Stills, a Deerfield native whose grandfather William Jones was bridge tender at the Hillsboro Bridge and whose father G.E. Jones was a bean farmer, has fond memories of the celebration she attended at age seven.

“We got off from school a half day for the big event. The women in the Lions Auxiliary prepared pies and baked goods for sale and to be served. The men did the barbequing. There wasn’t a parade then, but we had a lot of fun,” Stills said.

Early Cracker Days included bake sales, Little League baseball games, stock shows, square dancing and musical entertainment. Games included pitch-a-penny, musical chairs and cake walks. Carnival rides were added later —a Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and tilt-a–whirl.

In an old Sun Sentinel interview, Wiles said the Lions sold advanced tickets (for as little as $1.50 in the early days) with, perhaps, a little arm twisting.

“We used to take blocks of tickets down to the sheriff and he’d force people to buy them. All the politicians helped . . .” said Wiles. He also said that the first three years of the event it rained all day and they had to put up a tent over the open air fire pit. It was so hot under the tent he intimated that a person could get well cooked along with the ribs and chicken.

Cracker Day was not just a community event it was an opportunity for politicians to “sell” themselves to a large gathering of voters. Amie Kay Tanner, a Deerfield native and charter member of the Deerfield Beach Historical Society, remembers this story from the mid-1950s.

“The story goes that LeRoy Collins [Florida Governor 1955, 1956-1960] was on a speaking tour down the east coast of Florida and while in Delray he heard about the Deerfield Cracker Day event and its celebration of the farming community. He asked to be taken to the local farm supply store where he purchased bib overalls, a red bandana and straw hat. On the way to Deerfield, he was able to groom his speech to the agricultural history of the town and issues that would be of interest to the population,” she said.

Cracker Day grew over the years. A parade, considered the highlight of the event, was added with the first parade down Hillsboro Boulevard consisting of a string of cars with politicians aboard. Subsequent parades became a sought after venue for local and state politicians to ride on floats or in convertibles where they could be seen by a multitude of voters.

Eventually, a theme for each year’s event was designated with the parade led by a Grand Marshal. In 1966, 200 units—floats, cars, marching bands, and walking groups—paraded from the Cove Shopping Center, down the beach and back to Pioneer Park. Plaques were presented to winning floats in a variety of categories. To kick off the parade in 1987, an air show took place over the fishing pier. Subsequent aerobatic plane rides were offered for $65 at the Boca Raton airport.

A printed program with paid advertising by local businesses informed residents of the scheduled events and helped raise additional funds for many of the Lions’ philanthropic projects—Foundation for the Blind, Florida Lions Eye Bank, Conklin Center for the Multi-Handicapped, Leader Dogs for the Blind, and a multitude of local community organizations.

In 1967, a teen dance was held on Friday night. There was also a talent contest with the winners entertaining residents after the barbeque. The Lions held their first Cracker Day beauty pageant in 1968 in the recreation hall at Pioneer Park working with a budget of a mere $35. The title held by the first winner, Jeannette Black, was “Miss Deerfield Beach, Queen of Cracker Day.”

By 1983, the pageant had a budget of $5,000 and was conducted by a professional pageant group. Judging was held at Deerfield Beach High School. Several of the queens went on to compete in other pageants and earn titles such as Miss Junior Miss of Broward County and Miss Florida. By Cracker Day 1987, the pageant had disappeared.

With the celebration of Cracker Day’s 30th anniversary in 1979, steak and baked potatoes were added to the menu. Instead of a fire pit, gas and charcoal grills were fired up in a permanent cooking shed. Lion Harry Chitwood, one of the cooks, said they grilled 5,000 steaks and the same number of ears of corn that year. Corn shucking began at 5 p.m. the day before the event.

Cracker Day became the largest Deerfield Beach event but eventually became too big for the waning and aging Lions Club membership. The first component to be dropped by the Lions was the parade. But instead of allowing this crowd pleaser to disappear, a group of dedicated residents stepped in.

“The first thing we did was put an ad in the Deerfield Observer to ‘Save the Cracker Day Parade,’ said Peggy Noland, former commissioner and mayor of Deerfield Beach who was actively involved in the group to save the parade.

She said that a committee was formed to oversee and organize the parade utilizing volunteers from the community. Several years later, the same committee accepted more responsibility and took over the entire Cracker Day event. It became a 501c3 organization and continued the tradition of supporting needs in the community from festival profits.

Because the Lions had registered the name “Cracker Day” with the State of Florida and didn’t want to surrender it, the committee renamed the event “Founder’s Day.” They also moved the event from April to the President’s Day weekend.

After each festival, the committee met to critique the event. Following summers off, they reconvened in September and met every other week in the scout hut at Pioneer Park or at City Hall. Later, the committee of 14 dedicated citizens—Pat Miller, Sue Hasson, Dave and Janet MacKay, Barbara Friend, Brenda Dismuke, Kirk Cortrell, Ray and Margie Santos, Lulu Taylor, Leslie Hall, Mary and David Pritchard and Sally Schauf—moved their meetings to Barbara Friend’s home.

“We used to sit around my dining room table and plan the event. Everyone had a job and we’d report back to each other,” said Friend who worked on the committee for 20 years.

The committee added fireworks, reversed the parade route, and moved the carnival and vendors to the beach. Noland said that with the backing of several Century Village commissioners, the city assisted in sponsoring Founder’s Day with in kind services such as garbage cans and collection, barricades, and security.

“It was very important to me, just as a resident, to keep the festival alive. It was historical in the community, and many good relationships were made because of Founder’s Day,” Noland said.

After 24 years, the event became too costly for the committee to run.

“When we composed our letter to the city acknowledging that we couldn’t continue, we did so with very heavy hearts. There were a lot of tears,” said Friend.

The City of Deerfield Beach took over the event in 2013 renaming it “Pioneer Days.” Today the festival runs an entire weekend and includes a parade, crafts, food vendors, entertainment and fireworks. By itself, the Saturday parade draws over 10,000 people from all over South Florida and has become a popular event that honors the city’s past while merging it with today’s contemporary urban community.


Historical information for this article was made available by the Deerfield Beach Historical Society.
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