The first Koo-Wee-Rup Potato Festival took place on February 17, 1973. Over 4,000 people attended the event. It started with a Grand Parade of thirty floats from business and community groups. The floats assembled in the Railway yards, took in Station Street, Rossiter Road and other streets and then ended up in Cochrane Park. The official opening then took place at 11.45am by Sir Gilbert Chandler, the Minister for Agriculture. After that the spectators could choose from a wide range of activities including dancing exhibitions, decorated bikes, a gem display, a pet parade, vegetable competition and a cooking contest with prizes for the best sponge, fruit loaf, scones and lamingtons.
However, the highlights of this Festival and the many that followed were the Australian Potato Picking Championship, the Potato Loading competition and the Potato Carrying competition. The potato picking competition required the entrants to pick two bags of potatoes - each the standard size of 150lb (about 68 kg). The inaugural winner of this competition was Frank Spano. The potato loading competition required two men to load a 150lb bag as high as they could onto a load of pallets, the height of which was raised after each round. Winners would lift up to eight feet or about 2.4 meters. Barry and John Hester were the first winners of this event. The potato carrying competition required the men to carry the bag of potatoes over 40 yards (about 36 metres) and Norm Bethune was the first winner of this event. It all sounds like a bit of a health and safety nightmare, but men were obviously tough in those days.
The first festival also introduced the Festival Queen. The first Queen was crowned at a ball held on Friday, February 9 at the St Georges Hall (Wattle Theatre). The ball was organised by the W.H.Y.L.O.S. (or the Westernport Hospital Young Ladies Organisation, a fund raising group for young women to supplement the efforts of the Hospital Ladies Auxiliary). The inaugural Queen was Jenny Burton. Jenny received a sash and a transistor radio. Subsequent entries into the Queen competition, the Princesses, had to be sponsored and raise (in 1974) at least $50.00. The entrants were also judged on appearance and dress, the ability to speak in public, general knowledge of the potato industry and a willingness to represent the Koo-Wee-Rup Festival at the Fassifern Potato Festival in Queensland. The Queen was always crowned at the Festival Ball.
The Festival was promoted in the media and attracted some high profile visitors – it was opened by the Premier of Victoria, Sir Rupert Hamer, in 1979; the next year by the Governor of Victoria, Sir Henry Winneke and in 1981 by media personality, Sir Eric Pearce. From 1975, the Festival had a float in the Moomba Parade, where the Festival Queen rode on the ‘King Spud’ float. In 1977, a new ‘King Spud’ was made as a potato costume and worn to publicise the Festival. We have this costume at the Historical Society. As the Festival grew other events were added, for instance in 1974 the Australian Potato Peeling competition was introduced (the inaugural winner was Mrs Joyce Mills); in 1977, the heaviest potato; in 1978, junior bagging and carrying competitions and in 1981 the Ladies potato bagging.
The 1979 Potato Festival Promotion in Bourke Street, Melbourne
Koo-Wee-Rup Swamp Historical Society photo
The whole idea of the Potato Festival was to raise money for the Westernport Memorial Hospital and the first Festival raised over $2,000. The concept of a Festival was discussed in 1972 and in the October of that year the Chamber of Commerce Sub-committee for the Koo-Wee-Rup Potato Festival met for the first time. Those present were Keith Ridgway, Ken Huxtable, Ron Townley, C.Fisher, J. Acciarito, Keith Doherty and Harry Graham. Harry Graham was elected Chairman and the planning and organisation undertaken by this group resulted in the first successful Festival. Around September 1973, the Koo-Wee-Rup Potato Festival Committee was formed, with Harry Burton as inaugural President, and the members of this Committee continued to manage successful Festivals with great support from local business and community groups.
The last Festival was held on March 25, 2000. From reports that we have at the Historical Society it appears that in the previous years support in some quarters was dwindling, plus there was some uncertainty over the future of the Hospital, which was renamed Koo-Wee-Rup Regional Health Services in February 1997. On Friday, February 16 2001 the former Potato Festival Committee members met to ‘farewell a community institution’ as the Pakenham Gazette reported. The Committee had an opportunity to reflect on the success of past Festivals which raised large amounts of money to support the local Hospital and put Koo-Wee-Rup and its potato festival on the map.
The late Fred Hooper, Head Master at Koo-Wee-Rup High School for close to twenty years from 1963, has written a book on the history of the Potato Festival, At King Spuds Court: the story of the Koo-Wee-Rup Potato Festival’s first ten years (1972-1982). It is available from the Koo-Wee-Rup Swamp Historical Society for the very modest price of $5.00.