It started off as a spark of an idea tying in the city’s largest commodity — Hershey Chocolate – in an attempt to create a fun festival. Twenty years later the festival has blossomed into an event that last year lured 80 bajillion people to Oakdale with the promise of chocolate.
Well, maybe not quite 80 bajillion, but 72,000 people flocked to the city to attend the 19th annual Cowboys and Chocolate festival and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
“I remember being very excited about getting it started,” said Sonja Herndon, C21 M&M Associates Realtor and original Cowboys and Chocolate festival committee member. “Back then festivals weren’t as huge as they are now. It’s wonderful to see the growth and success of it.”
A lot has happened in the space of 20 years, including the adios departure act of Hershey Chocolate when they moved their Oakdale operations to Mexico to save a few dollars on their bottom line. The loss of Hershey was a major one, not only to the community but to the festival that had built its foundation on the chocolatier, but Herndon said, “We have such a supportive community and we’ve always had a strong Chamber of Commerce person at the helm to make it all fit together. First we had Linda Bertolotti and Sharon Ball and now we have Mary Guardiola, who does a wonderful job.”
Although it would be safe to assume that the committee suffered some pre-festival jitters on that first foray, Herndon said they were confident they had a winning idea on their hands.
“We were always confident that it would work. There was no doubt. I mean, who doesn’t love chocolate?” Herndon said. “It has continued to grow and bring so many people into our community and we all benefit from that.”
Dawn Bongotti-Taylor, a former Hershey employee as well as chocolate festival committee member for that inaugural year and the many years that followed, said they were shocked by how well that first festival did.
“We were surprised by how many people came. We didn’t even have a stage for the chocolate challenge,” Bongotti-Taylor said. “That first year, there were wall-to-wall people in the Hershey store. So many, in fact, I almost wanted to cry because I didn’t know what to do with all those people. It was overwhelming. Nobody knew it was going to be as big as it was.”
The festival expanded, spreading and growing, until it became what it is today — a destination event in the month of May.
“You know there was a big misconception from the beginning that it was Hershey’s festival because Hershey donated so much product but the Chamber was smart in rebranding it Cowboys and Chocolate. I’m proud that I’ve been involved in all 20 years in some way or another,” Bongotti-Taylor said. “It’s really neat knowing you’ve been a part of something that helps bring tourists and increased sales to Oakdale.”
Herndon said, although the times may have changed and vendors may have come and gone, one aspect of the festival has remained the same and it’s the backbone of the event.
“First and foremost, it’s a family-oriented event and a family festival,” Herndon said. “You can bring the whole family to the festival and there’s something for everyone to enjoy.”
The 20th annual Cowboys and Chocolate Festival will be held May 19-20, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
For more information, call the Oakdale Chamber of Commerce at 209-847-2244.