First Queen attends 100th Fall Festival
Exeter’s 100th anniversary of its Fall Festival was a huge success on Saturday, Oct. 12. And while the festival looked much the way it has since 1990, there was at least one surprise at two events.
Norma (Chambers) Mann quietly attended the Old Timers Lunch which has been a part of the festival since the first Emperor Grape Festival in 1931. She was among a record 280 people to attend the event this year, but didn’t do anything to stand out amongst the crowd. Like those in attendance she was born in Exeter more than 50 years ago (she is 83 years old) and was a graduate of Exeter Union High School (Class of 1949). But what many at the traditional event didn’t know is that Norma was the festival’s first ever queen, a fact that was made clear when she was later announced during the Optimist Club’s Whiskerino Contest as part of the festivities at City Park.
“Me and my friend Shirley Hickam were arguing whether or not I was the first queen,” Norma said in an interview during Fall Festival week. “Shirley said there were queens before me, but I said they were never called queens. She eventually admitted she was wrong.”
Hickam wasn’t the only Exeterite to presume the first queen must have come earlier in the festival’s 100-year history than Norma’s reign at the 1947 Emperor Grape Festival. It is true there was a queen at the first Chrysanthemum Festival in 1913, Della Richards, but she was not a festival queen and records do not exactly make it clear what she was queen of. In 1914, Vera Cornelius was named a Queen of All Seasons, but it was a separate event held in conjunction with the 2nd Chrysanthemum Festival. From 1915-1939 there was either no festival or there was no queen associated with the festival.
The idea of having a young woman serve as the figurehead of the youth-centered celebration did not occur until 1940 when Lillian Zimmerman served in that capacity. But her title was “Theme Girl” of the Emperor Grape Festival. The next year, queen was still not a title associated with the festival as Delores Coiner was named the “Festival Girl.” The festival was not held during World War II from 1942-1945. A festival was held in 1946 but no queen was crowned, bringing us to 1947, when 19-year-old Norma Chambers was crowned as the first Emperor Grape Festival Queen in the EUHS Auditorium.
“I remember I had a special place to sit during the football game on Friday night,” Norma said. “I was very flattered that the Chamber of Commerce asked me to be queen. It wasn’t like it is now. They asked a few girls and then picked a queen. I guess I was the kind of girl they were looking for.”
Her announcement at Fall Festival was the first time Norma had been recognized as the first queen since a reunion of the queens in the 1960s. Shortly after graduating from EUHS, Norma moved to Los Angeles to attend Occidental College. Her parents lived in the 400 block of D Street just down the street from the park where she was crowned 66 years ago and recognized at the 100th festival a few weeks ago just before the revived Whiskerino Contest, which coincidentally debuted in 1947.
“I remember everyone being so nice to me as queen,” she said. “It was a little different because I was 19 and dating Jack, so he was my escort to everything. But besides the football game and the parade, I don’t remember many other events.”
Even the late, great historian and journalist Joe Doctor referred to Norma as Exeter’s first queen. During his life and now in his writings, Doctor remains a stalwart authority on all things Exeter history.
“He always called me the first queen so I figured he was right,” she said.
Norma may also be Exeter’s oldest living festival queen, especially considering Theme Girl Lillian (Zimmerman) DeShazo passed away several years ago and it seems no one knows what happened to Delores Coiner.
She married her husband of 63 years Jack Mann (also a 1949 graduate of EUHS) in that home in 1950. Her father Paul Chambers owned and operated Exeter Electric, an electrical contracting business in the brick building at the corner of Pine and E streets.
“A few years ago I found an old Exeter Electric socket face plate at a hardware store and bought it,” Norma said. It now covers the light switch in the dining room of her Visalia home.
Norma’s mother Ruth moved to Three Rivers after Paul’s death in 1969. Norma and Jack moved to Orosi where they lived for 25 years. Many in Tulare County know Jack Mann as a long-time baseball coach at Orosi High School and minor league scout in the Central Valley. The Manns eventually moved to their current home on West Main Street in Visalia in 1981. Norma said she hasn’t attended many Fall Festivals since she moved away from home, but understands why something so wholesome remains so popular in Exeter.“People raised in Exeter have a fierce loyalty to their community,” she said. “I still have lunch with a few of the women I went to grammar school with.”
Being the fist festival queen in Exeter is not the only historical distinction held by Norma. A diary of her ancestors’ journey to the West in 1865 remains one of the most detailed accounts of the wagon train tribulations of our nation’s and our region’s history. In fact, a table in the parlor of her home is thought to be one of the last remnants of trip passed down from generation to generation.
“My father almost threw it in the trash but I wouldn’t let him,” Norma said. “He told me if I could fit it into my little car I could have it. So I made sure to get it in.”
Norma is also a direct descendant of the first Governor of Massachusetts, one of the original 13 colonies. She is also a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, having traced her family’s history back to the Revolutionary War.
“I don’t think the festival has changed that much which is why it still has that hometown feel,” she said. “I think it’s simplicity is what makes it so wonderful and such and enduring tradition for my hometown.”