The annual Wasau possum festival in Florida marked its 50th anniversary on Saturday. The event, which includes a host of possums every year, also marked the retirement of long-time festival chairman, Joe Tharp.
WASAU — Dalton Carter hushed the audience at the Possum Palace during the 50th annual Possum Festival in Wasau on Saturday to introduce festival chairman Joe Tharp. Dressed in his peach polo embroidered with his name and an image of a possum, Tharp looked anxious as Carter, the founder of the Fun Day and the Possum Festival, began his remarks.
“Joe Tharp will be retiring as the chairman of the Possum Festival,” Carter said.
Carter invites everyone from the city of Wasau, the firefighters, the Wasau Quilt Club and Wasau Development Club to come up to the front of the stage. As representatives from each of the groups came forward, Tharp’s eyes grew glassy and he pursed his lips.
As Carter hands Tharp a plaque celebrating his 25 years of service as chairman of the festival, he said that he’s spent more time with Tharp than he has with members of his own family.
When Tharp takes the microphone, he said that this decision was a long time in the making. Whenever he would tell the committee, he said, they would look at him and continue planning. But after 25 years, he feels it is time to pass the responsibility to someone else.
“We are gonna start the possum auction off in just a second, Tharp said. "I’m gonna hold the first one when we auction it off, and y’all gonna take it from there brother. That’ll be the last one I hold up.”
The Possum Festival was started 50 years ago by Dalton Carter with the Wasau Development Club back when the town had a population of only 313 people, he said. For years before, the Panhandle town, 30 miles north from Panama City, the only community event was an annual fish fry.
In 1970, the Wasau Development Club asked him to run that year’s fish fry. He noticed that if people wanted a fun festival with something for everyone in the family, they would have to go all the way to Chipley or Panama City.
“What I tried to do is include in my program something for everybody to do here,” Carter said.
He organized a parade, a cornbread contest, hog calling and live music.
Tharp remembers the first Wasau Fun Day in 1970.
“They had coffee in a washpot, they had a 100 pounds of mullet, local entertainment on a flatbed trailer and it rained. They sold out of everything,” Tharp said.
After the success of the first Fun Day, Carter looked to find a way to draw more people to festival. The following year organizers captured possums and auctioned off the opportunity to take a possum by the tail and shake it for the audience. The first winning bid was $50 from Lenzy Corbin, who served on the Washington County Board of Commissioners for 28 years.
For the last 50 years, a lot has changed with the festival. Now the Possum Palace can hold dozens of people comfortably. Food and art vendors line the field in front of it and people come from around the world to see it. Politicians seeking statewide office are almost required to place a bid on a possum in an election year.
But the things that are important to Joe Phillips have not changed.
He is the third generation of owners of a house built in the 1930s on the parade route in downtown Wasau. As a kid he captured the gopher tortoises for the gopher races and was the Hog Calling champion one year.
“It is pretty much the same town as it has always been,” he said.
He said he loves how people take care of one another and loves the fellowship people share during the festival.
Wayne Rudd has one of the most important jobs at the festival. He watches the possums before the auction and safely delivers them to the stage. He said taking caring of wild possums, which are released right after the festival, isn’t hard. All they need is food, water and to be left alone.
But to Rudd the Possum Festival is more than just a fun sideshow in North Florida.
“The possum is symbol of pioneer independence," Rudd said. "People was here before the Depression and they made do. Everything we do here pays homage to that. Everything we do honors them people that founded this country around here,” Rudd said.