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A Tomato Princess and the Prisoner of War (January 2017)

A Tomato Princess and the Prisoner of War

By Deborah Burkett

At the start of each New Year we are inclined to ponder life--take stock of things. Typically it's an examination of the previous twelve months. Did we accomplish what we set out to do?

In this case I want to visit a little further back in time--about 76 years ago. The vehicle I will use to take us there is an interview I conducted by phone in 2016.

At last year's Tomato Fest a chance meeting with Georgeann Crawford of Dallas led me to her mother, Mary Ann Stribling Brittain.

In 1941, Mary Ann represented Alto as their Tomato Princess. She was one of 38 girls named princess that year-they hailed from various communities and counties in Texas, as well as other states.

As you will note from my conversation with Mary Ann and her daughter, much more than just Tomato Fest history was shared. I also learned of school days prior to World War II, a prisoner of war liberated by Patton's Army and strong women who still remember.

Mary Ann was born August 18, 1924, at Nan Travis Hospital. Her father, Robert Randolph Stribling was a funeral director and had his own hardware/furniture business in Alto for over fifty years. Her mother, Edith Francis Hurdle Stribling, was from Winnsboro, a high society girl who at fourteen went to Kidd-Key College and Conservatory, which was comparable to Hockaday in its time. She also graduated from the University of Texas…was a Chi Omega. Later, Mrs. Stribling's talents were in her ability to organize and produce activities in Alto.

Prior to the U.S. entering World War II, the Jacksonville Tomato Fest was a major event. In 1941, Miss Frances Stevens was crowned Tomato Queen and Mrs. Arch (Zula) Pearson, was head of the Lon Morris College speech department. Pearson had been director of previous coronation pageants and was slated to direct the '41 event as well. Her assistants were Miss Thelma Martensen, Miss Lena Etheridge and R.C. Myrick.

The pageant was entitled "The American Way" which combined patriotic themes with the Gay Nineties and included a cast of over 200 people.

Mary Ann elaborated, "In 1941, I was selected by the Alto School Board to be Tomato Princess…I was in the parades in Jacksonville…for the first one, mother had me sitting on a convertible that she borrowed from our dentist…after the parade we all went to the Queen's Ball, I remember the Dipsy Doodle. There was also a parade another day…and then we went to a gym and had a dance."

"At the Queen's Coronation, the Master of Ceremonies recognized each princess. I was introduced as "Lady Ann from the House of Stribling" and I walked across the field with my high school boyfriend and future husband, Ben Brittain, as my escort."

She continued, "I attended Lon Morris College, had a wonderful experience, received individual attention and was in the one-act play that traveled all over Texas. We won 2nd place; it was a comedy. Then on December 7, 1941, War was declared and all the students at Lon Morris went to the auditorium and listened to the radio..."

Once the U. S. was officially at War, young men by the thousands enlisted. Many in Cherokee County such as Ben Brittain of Alto answered the call as well.

Fighting was intense, news from the front not always encouraging as illustrated by the following information found in an old Alto Herald newspaper clipping.

"Ben Brittain Missing in Action: The War Department has advised relatives that Staff Sergeant Ben Brittain was missing in action since October 14. Sergeant Brittain had been on several big raids over Germany during the past few months, and had been wounded in action in one of the previous raids, but after a week in a base hospital, he returned to his duties. In the raid which he was reported missing on, was the big bombing raid of the large roller bearing plant at Sweinfurt, Germany, when 60 allied bombers were downed. It is believed that he was in one of these bombers that were shot down, and relatives and friends are hoping that he is still alive, although he may be a prisoner in Germany."

During my interview with Mary Ann she spoke of Ben, "After Lon Morris, I enrolled at SMU, majored in business and three weeks later after graduation, I married…"

"In Alto, my boyfriend was always Ben Brittain-he lived across from us and the Singletary's were our neighbors…Ben was a prisoner of war in Germany and after he returned to Alto we married July 14, 1945--in my parents' home…"

"Then after my daughter Georgeann was born, I worked-had to…"

"After 18 months in a German prison, my husband was liberated by soldiers in the U.S. Army led by General George Patton…Ben had suffered so much that once he was back in the U.S., he stayed home…he was never able to overcome his experiences in the War…"

"My husband was shot down in a B-17…he passed away in 1976 and is buried at the Alto Cemetery. During the War, his hands and feet were frozen, and then in 1961, he became a double amputee. Jim Bloxum, also a prisoner of war with my husband-put flowers on my husband's grave for a very long time..."

"At this point in my life, I was so glad my mother saw to it that my sister, Sara (Hicks) and I graduated college and could take care of ourselves. My sister is still living in Tyler…"

"During my career, I worked for three presidents at three banks before I went to work at Texas Instruments--after 27 years I retired from the company in Dallas-I was head Administrative Assistant."

When asked what she was doing these days, Mary Ann shared, "I'm enjoying resting…and I'm a member of the White Rock United Methodist Church…I'm the oldest member in age and in length of membership. I joined in 1950…"

In closing, I want to extend my heartfelt thanks and admiration to the 1941Tomato Princess, Mary Ann Stribling Brittain, and her daughter, Georgeann Crawford, for allowing me to share portions of our conversation. By doing so they are helping to preserve the history of Cherokee County. Their memories paint a vivid picture, allowing us to visit those carefree days of youth…and thanks to a 1941 photograph we can once again see what joy the Tomato Princesses experienced as they were photographed that day at Love's Lookout.

Photographed at Love's Lookout Park are six of the 38 Tomato Princesses selected for 1941. L to R: Mildred Dalston, Longview; Katherine Vining, Mount Selman; Ann Stribling, Alto; Bettye Briggs, Terrell; Mary Virginia Orn, Marshall; and Rebecca Moren, Frankston.

Ben Brittain photo from newspaper clipping