Shared History - June 2017
1985: A Church Fair Becomes Crab Fest
"Crab Lady" Pam Metzler and other Crab Fest veterans share the history and traditions of this favorite coast festival.
- story by Lisa Monti and Tricia Donham McAlvain, photographs by Ellis Anderson
“We don’t charge for admission so it’s impossible to know how many people come in, but it’s thousands. At night sometimes you can hardly walk,” said longtime Crab Fest chairperson Pam Metzler.
Church fairs were a big part of growing up here, and many volunteers are carrying on a family tradition. “All the local church families worked the fair,” said Metzler. “My mom worked the cake booth.”
The first few years of the festival, it was held on property that celebrity clarinetist, Pete Fountain owned (near the foot of the bridge where the Chapel Hill neighborhood is now). Pat Murphy remembers playing there with his wife Candy, guitarist John Bezou and drummer Jerry L’Enfant.
Metzler says the festival was moved to the church/school grounds because the shade from the live oaks gave some relief from the mid-summer heat, yet still allowed for breezes from the gulf.
This year’s Crab Fest will be the 20th year Metzler has served as chairperson. In 1997, Pam, who was Hancock County's circuit clerk at the time, was approached by Father Pete Mocker, who asked if she'd take on the enormous job of chairing the event. After consulting with her family, who promised to help, she took on the job, becoming the first woman to do so.
Now she's retired from the county, but not the Crab Fest. She and the other dedicated volunteers return year after year to keep the pieces and parts of this three day festival rocking along. It’s hard work, in the heat, but they enjoy it.
“Everybody always has a wonderful time. A lot of volunteers aren’t even church members, they’re just members of the community or members of other churches, other denominations,” Metzler said. “Because it’s so fun.”
Just a few of the regular volunteers
(editor's note: these Shoofly Magazine photographs were taken before 2017 and a few of the folks below have passed away since then).
Metzler and others shift into Crab Fest mode in January, and a few even set up camp on the fair grounds ahead of the opening. “Six months ahead of time, they start getting ready to prepare food,” Metzler said.
Laura Piazza Griffith (editor's update: Laura passed away in 2019) makes 600 pounds of crab stuffed potatoes. Others boil 7,000 crabs and 3,500 pounds of shrimp. Some fry the seafood and make the gumbo and other items.
Kevin Haas and Mike Gibbens have been boiling the crabs and shrimp since the beginning days of the festival. "Starting 15 years ago, we got it down to a science,” said Haas. “We boil the crabs and shrimp separately in big pots with baskets in water. Then we cool the crabs or shrimp in water with seasoning, in what we call "charge pots" and then they are ready to eat.”
The Monti family has been involved in the Crab Fest since before day one. “The Monti brothers, Bill and Joe, had the original idea for the Fourth of July fair and carnival,” said Metzler. “They said let’s do a crab festival, it’s the Gulf Coast and there was no one doing one at the time.”
The late Gene Monti (“The Sweetest Man in Town”), his wife Mary Alice and his sister Lydia Favre were long time volunteers. Gene was well known as the cotton candy man and he also handmade cast nets that were raffled off. The husband of Monti’s niece carries on the traditional of knitting crab nets that are raffled.
“It’s a great, great festival and so much fun. We laugh and we work and we’re tired, I truly love it,” Metzler said. “I tell people you can’t quit the Crab Fest, you have to die to get out,” Metzler jokes. “We’ll be 80 and still be out there boiling crabs.”
And for those who make it to closing, there’s even a fun tradition.
“We get the band to play the second line and the die-hard volunteers who have stayed to the end dance all around the pavilion waving napkins," says Metzler. "When we throw our napkins down that means Crab Fest is officially over for the year."
"Then, we go soak our feet in the [soft drink] cooler with the leftover ice," she says, laughing.
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