Tuesday night at the Gramercy Restaurant in Pittston was what we called Bowling Night. I won’t go into who the “bowlers” were but most were well-known Pittston Area guys. Conversation was always lively and the image of Pittston was often the topic.
Having lived in South Pittston all my life, I had many Italian-Americans as friends and there was not a bad guy among them. We didn’t understand nationalities and it never mattered to us from where our families migrated. The character of the person is the only thing that mattered.
I’ve been asked how the idea of a Tomato Festival originated so I will tell the story of how and why the festival began. During those days, Pittston was known as the Voter Fraud Capital of the World. It was also known as the birthplace of the Mafia in America. That was my childhood background and the reputation of Pittston at that time and that was the basis of the Tomato Festival — to change the image of our city.
After much discussion of our city’s image, I thought it was time for a real change and so I, along with P.J. Melvin, Ken Scaz, Anne Bradbury and the late Paul McGarry, began to meet. Our thought was to create an event to facilitate the needed change. At first, it was our thought to renew the former Miss Wyoming Valley pageant, a stepping stone to Miss PA Pageant and, eventually, to the Miss America Pageant. The logical person to go to for advice was the late Joe Ristagno of Ristagno’s Bakery. Joe was always involved in the arts and, in particular, the Wyoming Valley Beauty Pageant. We invited Joe to a meeting and explained our goal. The first thing he said was the pageant is a one-day affair and we needed a weekend event. We talked about various events around the country, including a Garlic Festival and even a Cow Chip Festival. We needed a “thing” that would be catchy and never used before. Scaz mentioned that his neighbor Val D’Elia was a tomato enthusiast — thus the Pittston Tomato Festival.
At first, the name sounded ridiculous and impossible to make into a big event, especially one that would last a weekend. But that’s what we settled on and we invited Val to meet with us and to say he was thrilled would be a gross understatement; he loved the idea. It was agreed that he and Ken would go to Mayor Tom Walsh to seek the city’s blessings and Tom being his usual self said he never stood in the way of a party. He allowed Paul, then city administrator and me (I was the mayor’s deputy) to spend a few working hours devoted to organizing the soon-to-be-great and long-lasting Pittston Tomato Festival.
Val explained the 1920s term “Pittston Tomato” as the term the New York and New Jersey wholesalers used to describe the tomatoes grown in this area because they were shipped out of Pittston. Make no mistake, these dealers wanted the Pittston Tomato as it was known for its taste. Val explained the name referred to all tomatoes grown between Tunkhannock and Berwick which got their great taste from the acidity in our soil due to the presence of coal.
We promoted the Pittston Tomato as the greatest-tasting tomato in the world and Pittston as the Tomato Capital of the world. I recall an incident when an out-of-town newspaper reporter called city hall and spoke with Paul McGarry and asked him how he knew the Pittston Tomato had the greatest tomato taste in the world. With his quick wit, Paul said he knew it because Mayor Walsh said it and everyone knows Mayor Walsh would never lie. So there it was, proof positive that the Pittston Tomato is the greatest tomato in the world and Pittston City is the world’s tomato capital.
The success of the Tomato Festival was due to hard-working and dedicated citizens and the cooperation of the late Pidge Watson and the Sunday Dispatch, along with the other Wyoming Valley media. We even had help with the production of free TV commercials and constant media coverage during the festival.
The small group quickly grew with dedicated members such as Emil and Honey Posluszny, Jimmy and Judy Deice, Stanley, Judy and daughter Angel Strelish, Sam Micelli, Bill Hopple. Bob Conway, Jay Goham, Gary Bradbury, Sam Valenti. the Farugia brothers, Sal and Steve and so many others who contributed. I apologize if I’ve forgotten someone.
The generosity of Atty. Michael Cefalo, the Insalaco brothers, Walter Kuharchik Electric who all donated to the purchase of the bandshell and the late George Menn of Pittston Electric who believed in our effort and gave us the electrical equipment on credit, the Pittston Tomato Festival was off and running.
The spin-off benefit of the event, which became a driving point for us, was the opportunity for small non-profit and volunteer organizations to have the facility available to them for the cost of only $150. We provided a space 10 feet wide by 20 feet deep with lighting, electricity, tent coverage, entertainment, restroom facilities, security and garbage removal. Space was given on a first-come/first-served basis with non-profit and volunteer groups getting preference, followed by local individuals working as a neighborhood group and, finally, professional vendors.
During the management of the original festival, organizers, non-profit and volunteer groups made up over 65 percent of the stands with the remaining spaces filled with neighborhood friends and professional vendors. The finance committee determined each year the minimum amount of “rent” needed to cover expenses of the festival. It was never the goal for the festival to make money, just to cover expenses.
At the same time, the first festival was being planned, Ken Scaz and I drove to every farmers market we could find in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, begging farmers to come to the newly-formed Pittston Farmers Market. As the chairman of the farmers market, I was about to pull the plug on the idea because farmers said they didn’t have time for another market; they needed time to work the fields.
With just days to go before the planned opening date, Plains farmer Harold Golomb and a few others decided to give it a try and the farmers market was a huge success (Golomb Farms continues to sell produce in Pittston). Every Tuesday, we had fresh locally-grown produce, entertainment, great news coverage, the cooperation of the late great Manny Gordon and help from the state’s Dept. of Agriculture. The parking lot on Kennedy Boulevard, now the home of Burger King, became a busy spot on Tuesdays and was the original location of the Pittston Tomato Festival.
Now, 32 years later, the Pittston Tomato Festival and the Pittston Farmers Market survive and flourish and, with the new addition of the Pittston City St .Patrick’s Parade, Pittston will soon become known as the Citizen Volunteer Capital of the World.
Wil Toole was an original organizer of the first Pittston Tomato Festival. Reach the Sunday Dispatch newsroom at 570-655-1418 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.