Editor’s note: Columnist Judy Minsavage poured over copies of previous Tomato Guides as well as issues of the Sunday Dispatch to bring readers this detailed timeline of the Pittston Tomato Festival.
The Pittston Tomato Festival celebrated its silver anniversary in 2008. What unique model of car joined the Chevy SSR, PT Cruiser, Volkswagen Beetle, Humvee delivery truck and school bus in the line of Sunday Dispatch collectible vehicles?
A Sunday Dispatch headline announced “The ‘Best Tomatoes’ In Nation Grown Here C of C Maintains.” The Greater Pittston Chamber of Commerce wanted to “tell the world” about the “good eatin’ tomato that is produced from the rich river-bottom farmland, on the west side of the Susquehanna River in a section that runs from Exeter through Wyoming.” Brothers Mike and Joe Lukash were the focus of the story that had Joe claiming, “I’ve tasted tomatoes from Florida, Georgia, New York and New Jersey and there’s no comparison with ours.” Vincent O’Hara, executive secretary of the chamber stated, “According to agriculture officials, tomatoes grown by our local farms are, from a quality standpoint, among the best grown in the United States.” Lukash witnessed a change in tomato varieties such as Rutgers and Marglobe being phased out by newer varieties such as Moreton, Big Boy, Manapal and Pink Plum. “In a good season, we’ll get 2,000 baskets. A better year maybe 3,000,” Lukash added.
According to an article written by Wil Toole, he, P.J. Melvin, Ken Scaz, Anne Bradbury and Paul McGarry decided that a change was needed to improve Pittston’s image. They decided on an event that would be centered around “one thing” that would cast a positive light on their city. After discussing several options, Scaz told the group about Val Delia, a Pittston “tomato enthusiast” who believed the region produced the best-tasting tomatoes grown. Delia presented to idea to then-Pittston Mayor Thomas Walsh, who encouraged the venture.
The Tomato Festival Committee was pleased with the amount of people attending the inaugural three-day festival. By the second the day they were already planning the festival for 1985. The first annual Tomato Festival Run took place. Acts that performed throughout the last day of the event were: Medallion featuring Leroy Knowles and Tom Studders, Guitarist Bob Bath and Maxus featuring Mark Hartman, Dave Cupano, Diane Luke, Joe Luke and Dave Williams.
Thousands were expected to attend the festival, which was then held on Kennedy Boulevard.
After 80,000 people attended the fourth annual Pittston Tomato Festival and ABC News named it the “fastest-growing” festival in America, many wondered what was next for the event. Organizers mulled a decision to change the location to accommodate more people. Publicity chairman Paul McGarry felt that enlarging the celebration would cause the event to lose its hometown feel. All those concerned agreed that any move outside of the city would not be considered.
The three-day festival became incorporated into a private, non-profit civic organization. Val Delia, president of the festival committee, said of the move, “That can only mean growth for the festival and a greater demand for the tomatoes that are produced in the area.”
The Tomato Festival Queen pageant made its debut. The first to be crowned queen was Tammy Lee Johnson.
With over 2,000 participants, it was estimated that over 10,000 people lined the streets of Pittston to watch the Tomato Festival Parade. The Gunzelman family traveled from New Jersey to attend and Jane Tracy of Avoca planned to spend the day at the festival with her two children Elizabeth and Matthew.
The Pittston City Police Department operated a dunk tank, giving patrons the opportunity to soak their favorite police officer, local politician, newspaper columnist or other special guest. Members of the department were joined by Tom O’Donovan, Bob Finnerty, Sgt. Edward Judge, Judy Knick, John Argento, Frank Pointek, Bill Hopple and Mike Cotter.
The Tomato Festival Parade was expected to be the largest in its history. Rain dampened the first two days of the now four-day event. On Saturday morning, shortly before the parade was scheduled to begin, the rain stopped and crowds were treated to warm temperatures and sunshine for the rest of the day.
The Tomato Festival became the largest fundraiser for many local organizations, allowing the groups to continue to benefit the community throughout the year. The Showcase Theater, Greater Pittston Lioness Club, Knights of Columbus, Veterans of the Vietnam War, Wyoming Valley Drug and Alcohol Organization, churches, and athletic and band clubs were just some of the many vendors.
Former Pittston Mayor Thomas Walsh, who, 10 years prior, gave his blessing to starting the event, was named festival grand marshal at the 10th annual event. After a brief hiatus, the Tomato Festival Queen pageant directed by Gina Major and Linda O’Boyle was reintroduced. Committee members were Phyllis and Amy O’Boyle, Joan Zaneski, Gerri Degillio and Mary Regula.
Ken Scaz, Tomato Festival committee member and Pittston barber, was looking for a new attraction for the festival. As it happened, Tom “Nitro” Simko, the director of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Arm Wrestling Association, was a steady customer at Scaz’s barber shop. After some discussion, the first Arms of Steel arm wrestling event was planned for the upcoming festival.
The Tomato Festival committee honored Salvatore Battisti, Samuel Miceli, Nellie Bayoras Romanas, Millie Volpetti and James Clark, all of Pittston, for the contributions to the community.
The 12th annual Best Pittston Tomato contest was open to farmers and any resident who grew tomatoes. The only criteria was that the the entries be from the Pittston tomato belt, which was described as between Tunkhannock and Shickshinny. Professional farmers Harold Golomb, Carl Zekoski and Bernard Gigarski were appointed to judge the competition.
Festival parade organizers sent out an invitation for local car clubs to enter class, custom and muscle cars to the annual parade.
Music was on the minds of everyone as an all-star lineup of national and local groups were set to perform. Opening night featured Motown legend Shirley Reeves of the Shirelles. Scheduled to perform over the next three days were the Poets, Somethin’ Else, The Buoys, The Highlights, Joey Dee & the Starlighters, Flaxy Morgan, RPM Old Stars, Mere Mortals, and the Badlees.
The Pittston Area advanced placement chemistry class members Christopher Corey, Wally Bechtold, Dana Klush, Tracey Nowrocki, Adam Joyce and Gene Melvin, planted 20,000 tomato seeds in a greenhouse with the help of Ann Marie Roberts, Penn State Cooperative Extension instructor. Though the original intent was to learn about farming methods, the ultimate plan was to experiment with the Rutgers hybrid they hoped one day would become the official Pittston Tomato.
Construction crews demolished the former Spring Street Auto building and an adjacent structure located on Main and Spring streets to make way for the growing festival. More work was scheduled to be completed for the lot in 2002. The historic Eagle Hose Company on Kennedy Street just off the festival lot was renovated with new garage doors, windows, exterior lighting and paint. The former festival lot on Dock Street and Kennedy Boulevard now contained a Burger King and CVS drugstore.
Linda Zaneski O’Boyle, Dupont, credited pageants such as the Pittston Tomato Festival Queen for giving her the self-confidence and educational opportunities and helped her to go on to win the Miss Pennsylvania and Mrs. Pennsylvania titles. O’Boyle won the festival queen title in 1988.
The first “Dispatch car” was available to win at the Sunday Dispatch booth. Does anyone have the whole fleet of collectible cars? Call us at 570-991-6403. Give the wheel a spin at the Dispatch booth this year to win a replica of the Chevy Camaro.
The first ”tomato fight” was scheduled for Cooper’s parking lot. It was the newest and some said “most controversial event” to be added to the Tomato Festival.
Lou Sperazza, a home winemaker, found a recipe for tomato wine in a winemakers’ magazine and wanted to have it available for the festival. It was nearly ready but needed another week or so to perfect. Tasting a sample, Sperazza said, “It has a dry, white wine taste. Push the Tomato Festival ahead another week and wine would have been just perfect.”
Pittston Police Chief Paul Porfirio and Fire Chief Frank Roman led the Pittston Tomato Festival 5K Run. Both were selected to lead the run as a tribute to local emergency service personnel.
The festival celebrated its 20th year.
Joe Lukash learned how to grow and appreciate the Pittston tomato from his father Joseph and his uncle Mike Lukash. After all, both men extolled the unique flavor of the Pittston tomato back in 1963. After Lukash retired from the U.S. Postal Service in 1992, he took up farming full-time raising not only tomatoes, but cabbage, herbs, peppers, cucumbers and more. Admitting the family farm was not as large as in earlier years, Lukash, who tended the fields beginning at age 9, dubbed the work as “leisurely as compared to delivering the daily mail.” Lukash along with his wife, Rose, operated a farm stand along Susquehanna Avenue and their daughter, Sally, became a natural food chef.
Former Tomato Festival Queen Jennifer Angelo wanted to reunite all the festival queens to date. With the help of her mother Debbie, grandmother Mary Dzieciol and the Sunday Dispatch archives, Angelo was able to assemble each to add to the 20th anniversary celebration of the festival.
The Seton Catholic Key Club manned the Sunday Dispatch booth to raise funds for their organization and to help American troops abroad.
Tom Kokinda of Duryea was credited with having a garden that produces tomatoes four times the size of a baseball. “I actually do everything opposite from what everyone else tells me,” Kokinda admitted. “And I have a good garden.”
With the start of Pittston Tomato Festival just days away, Pittston Mayor Mike Lombardo and former Yatesville Mayor Jim Zarra set about cleaning up debris that had fallen from two condemned buildings on Main Street. With more than 50,000 people expected to crowd the city and line the streets for the upcoming parade, barricades were set in place to cordon off the area. With the date of demolition of the properties not yet set, Lombardo and Zarra cleared bricks from the sidewalk to make the area more presentable.
The Pittston Tomato Festival Committee presented the Pittston Historical Society with a check for $4,500 for the historical marker honoring the Garment Workers of Greater Pittston. The marker was installed at the entrance of the farmers market lot.
Pittston Mayor Michael Lombardo announced that the Tomato Festival lot would be named in honor of the late Robert Conroy, who had been a festival committee member from its inception.
The Tomato Festival Arms of Steel Armsport Championship entered its 12th year and more than doubled in contestants. Considered one of the top two arm wrestling competitions of the year in Pennsylvania, Arms of Steel Tournament Director Tom “Nitro” Simko said he expected 8 to 10 women to join in the tournament in 2006.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell came to the festival to present a $5,000 check to festival committee members Lori Nocito, chairman, and Phil Campenni.
Val Delia, president of the Pittston Tomato Festival committee, “founding father” of the festival and undeniable champion of the Pittston tomato, passed away earlier in the year. He was honored posthumously by being named grand marshal of the annual parade. His wife, Ethel, assumed his place in the lead car.
For the second year, Pittston City Volunteer Fire Fighters offered cold beer and entertainment at the Eagle Hose Company fire hall adjacent to the festival grounds.
Up to 100 people were expected to participate in the annual tomato fights at Cooper’s Waterfront.
The sauce wars were becoming a favorite part of the festival. Local restaurants offered their tastiest samples for festival patrons to sample and select as the best. A $1 donation to participate benefited the Greater Pittston YMCA.
In her Sunday Dispatch column, Maria Remembers, Maria Capolarella Montante mentioned that a 350-lb. tomato sculpture created by artist Laura Lengyel was scheduled to be installed at the corner of North Main and William streets. She also mentioned that Brian Yarvin, of the Washington Post, wrote a column which appeared in the Aug. 2 edition of the Post, “giving a vivid account” of the Pittston tomato fights. Yarvin also listed accommodations and places to eat while staying in the city. He was expected to re-visit the festival.
The Sunday Dispatch invited all those who attended the festival to be sure to take plenty of photos and upload them to the Dispatch website.
Arms of Steel Arm Wrestling Contest female winners were Alana DeMinico, Patricia W., Debbie Price, Crystal Malek and Sue Fisher.
The Tomato Festival 5K run was held in honor of Spc. Dale J. Kridlo, who was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010. The number of runners was expected to go beyond the 230 that had participated in the previous year. Planners included Albert Kridlo, Dale’s father; Michelle Hopkins, Jay Duffy and Jerry Mullarkey.
YMCA, sponsor of the Sauce Wars, reported a record-setting 1,100 people participated in the Tomato Festival’s annual contest. Craig Lukatch, Executive Director of YMCA, presented the first place trophy to Rob Musto of Junior’s Pasta House.
Sabatelle’s Market owner Jane Sabatelle was very happy with the amount of business her booth did at the Tomato Festival. Along with their regular customers, they met people from Pittsburgh, New Mexico and Rhode Island.
The annual Tomato Festival 5K Run was christened with a new name to benefit the Miles For Michael Fund. Jay Duffy, organizer, hoped the number of participants for the race would hit the 300 mark. Miles for Michael was named in honor of Michael Joyce, who passed away in 2011 from cancer. Proceeds provided support for cancer patients and their families.
To celebrate the Pittston Tomato Festival’s 30th anniversary, Executive Chef Biagio Dente, and son Chef Blaise Alan Dente, baked a tomato-batter cake expected to feed 800 people. According to Dente, the cake shaped like a tomato and topped with a tomato-flavored buttercream icing would take approximately 40 pounds of flour to make.
Returning after a year hiatus, the Tomato Festival Sauce Wars sponsored by the Greater Pittston YMCA was held. Nearly 700 people cast votes for the best sauce in the competition which included Cafe Italia, Callahan’s Cafe & Coffee House, CrisNics, Gigio’s Subs and More, and Napoli’s Pizza.
Jean Goham of Pittston attended her 31st consecutive Pittston Tomato Festival.
Former Major League Baseball player Andy Ashby signed autographs and posed for pictures with festival-goers at the Sunday Dispatch booth. All proceeds for that day went to the Jenkins Township Little League. Ashby’s four daughters, Ashton, Madison, Eastin and Taryn, all played Little League for Jenkins Township. The rest of the days were covered by the Greater Pittston Care and Concern Free Health Clinic. Stop by and visit with them again this year, try a spin of the wheel for our free giveaways and our collectible Sunday Dispatch car. All proceeds go to the clinic.
A 1.5-mile Fun Walk was added to the Miles for Michael 5K run event, enabling all ages and abilities to participate in the charity event.
The Mini Cooper joined our line of collectible Sunday Dispatch vehicles in 2008 during the silver anniversary celebration of the Pittston Tomato Festival.
The Second Annual Pittston Tomato Festival was expected to see over 20,000 people attending. Organizers from left P.J. Melvin, Pittston councilman; Wil Toole, chairman, farmers market; Stanley Strellish; Maria Capolarella, councilwoman; Val D’Elia; Thomas Walsh, Pittston mayor; Ken Scaz, festival chairman; Gary Bradbury, Albina DeAmbrose, Paul McGarry and Charles Bufalino.
It was a banner year for the Pittston tomato crop in 1989, but in this 1960 photo taken by Stephen Lukasik for the Dispatch shows Margaret Yonski in her Inkerman tomato garden holding two extremely large tomatoes. Yonski was the mother of 14 children, Ann Marino, Rose Yanko, Frank, Josephine Armalay, Catherine Boccolini, Michael, Joseph, Vicky Gubino, Wanda Ross, Caroline John, George, Janet Ceresi and Marion Price.
Members of the Wyoming Valley Youth Soccer, Pittston Stoners carry their banner in the 1987 Pittston Tomato Festival Parade.
This was just part of the record crowd attending the Pittston Tomato Festival in 1988.
People gather around the Pittston Tomato Festival mascot in 1989.
Students of Seton Catholic High School made a float for the 1990 Pittston Tomato Festival parade.
Festival-goers enjoyed a beautiful day at the 1996 Tomato Festival.
Then-Mayor Michael Lombardo of Pittston is on the receiving end in the Pittston Tomato Festival Tomato Fight in 2002.
In 2004, festival-goers took a chance on the big wheel.
Kolton Styczen expected to fill his bag full of goodies at the Pittston Tomato Festival Parade in 2011.
Kara Corbett tries her luck at winning a fish for her 11-month-old son Colin in 2013.
In 2004, this young lad got his first Sunday Dispatch Balloon at the Dispatch booth.
Reach Judy Minsavage at 570-991-6403 or on Twitter @JudithMinsavage.