By TRACI HASTINGS
Chronicle Staff Writer
WILLIMANTIC ‚ÄĒ Everyone at this year‚Äôs 14th annual Romantic Willimantic Chocolate Festival, held annually around Valentine‚Äôs Day, was in love Saturday.
Sure, some of them probably had deep meaningful connections with significant others, family members and friends.
But chocolate was the star of the event and the object of everyone‚Äôs affections.
It‚Äôs a love affair that has gone on for centuries, although it‚Äôs been officially celebrated in Willimantic only for the last 14 years.
‚ÄúChocolate was discovered in the Mayan and Aztec civilizations in Mexico,‚ÄĚ said Bev York, a historian and education director of the Windham Textile & History Museum.
York gave several presentations on the history of chocolate at Rajean‚Äôs Gifts, Antiques and Collectibles on Main Street during the morning.
She then presided over contests and games, including, of course, Candy Land, at the museum during the afternoon.
‚ÄúThe other name for chocolate was ‚Äėfood for the gods,‚Äô‚ÄĚ she said.
York explained conquistadors brought chocolate back to Europe by the early 1700s and the first person in America to produce chocolate was Thomas Leffingwell, in Norwich.
It‚Äôs popularity really took off when Milton Hershey, a maker of caramels, founded the Hershey Chocolate Co.
York posed questions to those in the audience of Rajean‚Äôs, whose owners had provided hot cocoa for the listeners, which included Windham Town Councilman Ernest Eldridge and his wife, Anita Sebestyen, both of whom, were dressed with touches of red and hearts.
A visitor from Bristol correctly remembered an advertising campaign for York peppermint patties, earning himself one as a treat, and Emily Graham, an Eastern Connecticut State University student, correctly guessed that Snickers bars are the most popular on the market currently, also winning one as a treat.
Graham said she planned to do some studying after checking out portions of the festival‚Äôs Chocolate Chip Stroll and the Snickers would help fortify her.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm definitely going to eat it right now,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs delicious.‚ÄĚ
A stroll and a jog
The Chocolate Chip Stroll took place along Main Street, where various businesses and organizations held events, offered free samples and competed in the contest for best window display, voted on by strollers.
The Willimantic Public Library offered Valentine-themed crafts for children upstairs, while downstairs, a representative from Quinebaug Valley Community College distributed course information.
The annual ‚ÄúLet Them Eat Cake‚ÄĚ baking contest and cake auction was held at the Kerri Art Gallery, where famed local musician Bruce John was also performing.
Out of 21 submitted confections, the winners of the contest were Matt Beisser and Christina Gover for best Willimantic-themed cake, Chakeya Belin in the adult category, Alexandra Smardon for the young adult group and Emily Campbell in the child category.
Tents set up at intervals along Main Street also distributed goodies and the Green Beauty Salon and Spa tempted passersby with a large-tiered stand of pink frosted cupcakes, plates of white chocolate-covered strawberries and a giant glass dispenser of pink lemonade in the window.
The Chocolate Chip Stroll may have added some calories, but smart festival attendees burned some off earlier that day in preparation at the festival‚Äôs Cupid Made Me Do It Urban Scramble.
At 10 a.m., runners and walkers, some in red or pink tutus, took off on a 2-mile course through the downtown streets, putting finishers in the right frame of mind for some goodies along the stroll route or for chocolate chip pancakes at the First Congregational Church.
Sisters Allison and Danielle Toppa and their friend, Julian Allard, all of Franklin, ran in the race before heading to A Cupcake for Later and Edible Arrangements as part of the Chocolate Chip Stroll.
Allison, 16, and Julian, 8, ran together, finishing with a time of 18.19, and Danielle, 14, followed with a time of 20.31.
Neither girl was initially that enthusiastic about participating in the race, but were encouraged by Julian‚Äôs older sister, Kelsey, while their mother, Christy, and Julian‚Äôs younger brother, Jayden, 7, cheered them on.
‚ÄúIt wasn‚Äôt that bad,‚ÄĚ said Danielle. ‚ÄúI kept a good pace the whole time, and it‚Äôs actually a nice day to be out.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúJulian set the pace,‚ÄĚ laughed Allison.
‚ÄúHolding the race first is good. It brings the people in,‚ÄĚ said Jean de Smet, a former Willimantic first selectman and mayoral candidate and one of the festival‚Äôs organizers, who also happens to be a prior Cupid.
De Smet was handing out brownies as well as information on both the various festival events and green energy options along the Chocolate Chip Stroll.
The stroll not only fortified people after the race, but provided a good base for another festival event: the Stupid Cupid Pub Crawl, where local pubs offered different specials.
Although the festival took place Saturday, Willimantic is by no means done with Valentine celebrations.
Each Valentine‚Äôs Day, a new Cupid ‚ÄĒ a local resident who has shown the town some civic love ‚ÄĒ is crowned and the announcement will be made Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Windham Town Hall.