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Swamp Fest: Fans gobble it up

Crowds enjoy arts, crafts, food and a monster contest at the ninth annual Swamp Fest in Weeki Wachee.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

[Times photo: Kevin White]
Debbie Windley, 38, gets her face made up by her aunt, Debbie Bishop. Windley was entering the swamp monster contest.
WEEKI WACHEE -- Crowds swarmed the Weeki Wachee Christian Camp even before the ninth annual Swamp Fest officially opened Saturday morning.

By noon, cars lined Shoal Line and Cortez boulevards as even more approached the event. Threats of rain had not proved accurate, although heavy winds whipped up their share of leaves and dust, and thousands appeared intent on enjoying the crafts, food and fun while they could.

"We come here every year. We wouldn't miss it," said Jeannine Bentley of Brooksville, as she perused wooden carvings shaped like pelicans, mermaids and manatees. "There's so much to see and so much to eat."

A man's voice sounded from an elaborate display that surrounded a large, green, wooden box. For 50 cents, he announced, you could "see for yourself, the rat, the world's biggest rat."

Bentley's son, Michael, emerged with his wife, Sheue-huah, after having heeded the call.

"It wasn't a rat," Sheue-huah Bentley said, laughing. "We should get our dollar back."

Debbie Windley drew gasps and giggles as she traversed the festival grounds in a camouflage alligator costume complete with green face makeup and rubber snakes and beetles attached. She planned to participate in the swamp monster contest, which she later won, and enjoyed the reactions she elicited.

"I did it before. I'm doing it again," Windley said. "It gets me up and going around, scaring all the little kids and stuff."

Her grandmother, Jessie Westerfield of Weeki Wachee, was in charge of the festival's 190 craft exhibitors. She also sold her own painted feathers, a hobby she enjoys while watching the Weeki Wachee River in the afternoons.

She said the festival has grown each year, as more and more vendors seek to attend.

"We have people call us from Maine, Arkansas. They tell us they heard about the show and want to come," Greenfield said. "When they come, we can't get rid of them."

The same holds true for the people who attend.

Pete Mihay moved to Weeki Wachee in 1978, and attended the first Swamp Festival because he saw an ad for it in an auto parts shop. He threw on a costume, won the inaugural swamp king competition, and kept coming back.

"It's something exciting, and it's nice to meet friends," Viking-costumed Mihay explained, after a conversation with Kara Hazivasilis of Brooksville, his newest friend. "I like people. I don't like real crowds, but I like people. A crowd like this is homemade."

Mihay didn't win the swamp king contest this year. That prize went to Jeremy Blevins of Bayport, husband of last year's swamp queen.

William Hazivasilis, 2, defended his swamp prince crown for a second year. Madison Peeler, 6, of Brooksville, claimed the swamp princess title.

Laura Samsel of Knoxville, Tenn., and Weeki Wachee was named swamp queen.

"This is a wonderful thing. I love this," Samsel said from beneath her outfit of green netting, pink azaleas, Spanish moss and more. "This is the first time I've been able to be here. It's beautiful."

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