Sunell Rogers takes her walk after being named the first Hopkins County Dairy Festival Queen in May of 1959. On the back of the photo is a handwritten note: "Dairy Queen 1959 (May) - Almost 16 - Yellow dress - beaded 'queens' stole. It was a lovely moment."
The Golden Jubilee
A royal visit with 1959 Dairy Festival Queen Sunell Rogers Comfort
By TERRY MATHEWS, News-Telegram Arts Editor
July 13, 2008 - "So you want me to tell you about the first Dairy Festival that occurred nearly 50 years ago?" says Sunell Rogers Comfort, the first Dairy Festival Queen, who was "almost 16" when she won the title in May of 1959. "Since I was the first queen, I guess I am the one to ask, but I wish my mother, Lena Maye Rogers, was here to recall the activities.
"She was one of three who initiated the event, believing we needed to do something to celebrate and honor the county's dairy farmers and families, because in the late 1950s, people around here were beginning to get fat and happy because of the milk business."
Comfort adds the festival was "much more of a county-wide celebration than it is today because the dairy business was what truly drove industry here." She said it seemed that every other family milked cows.
"I remember we would brag that Hopkins County was the top milk-producing county in the state," Comfort said. "There were more registered Jersey cattle and Grade A dairies here than any other county, and we ranked first in the south in registered Jerseys. Hopkins County had the largest evaporated milk plant in the South, the North Texas Producers Association processing and receiving plant, and an active milk hauling and dairy supply business."
Sunell Rogers Comfort today. She's shown relaxing in her back yard on College Street where the old horse/hay barn (back) still stands. The barn, used at Waits Dairy, was built in 1941 with lumber recovered from a Como barn.
Staff Photo By Angela Pitts
Comfort's grandparents, the late Lester and Mary E. Waits, owned the first Grade A dairy in the county, she said. They bottled milk from Waits Dairy on College Street. Comfort now lives on the property where the dairy barn is still standing. Her father was the late F.G. Rogers.
Comfort says 18 girls competed the first year.
"Each of us was sponsored by a social or civic club," she said. "There were more clubs in town then than there are now because fewer women worked and clubbing was more common."
Although contestants didn't have to be a junior in high school, as is the requirement today, the young ladies did have to be in high school.
"One contestant was to be the queen and the others were referred to as her ladies-in-waiting," Comfort said. "Eight towns sent representatives from their communities and they were called duchesses. After I was chosen as queen, I represented the county in each of those town's festivals. I recall that one was called the Peach Festival."
During the first years of the pageant, the talent competition did not figure into the scoring.
"We attended an afternoon tea and the judges watched the way we handled ourselves and how personable and conversational each girl was," Comfort explained. "I would imagine that looks were of some influence, but the main factor in who would win was the girl who sold the most tickets. It was that dynamic that I most value and remember."
Comfort said she worked hard to sell tickets, studying a map of the county and "going up and down every county road knocking on doors and selling tickets for a dollar apiece."
"I don't remember how many were sold, but I do remember that my grandmother bought $10 worth, which was the most any one person purchased," Comfort said. "That ticket selling exercise taught me skills I have used many times since and resulted in my feeling as if I knew everyone in town."
According to Comfort, floats weren't parade necessities during the first year.
"Each of us had to borrow someone's convertible so we could sit up on the back seat and make a show of it as we paraded up and down the main streets," she said. "Convertible cars were popular then. The hope was to borrow a car that matched your dress or find a dress that matched the car. After the long parade, some of us were sunburned the night of the first pageant. It's a wonder several of us didn't faint in the summer heat in those tight bodices."
On the night of the pageant, the high school gymnasium was transformed into a colonial garden of the Old South.
"We were all dressed like Southern belles," Comfort said. "Our waists were girded up in what was called a waist cincher. None of us could breathe deeply until the event was over. We were dragging around yards and yards of tulle and satin in the evening dresses we wore. My parents manufactured evening gowns during that time, so business must have been good that year. We wore similar gowns in the parade."
Comfort said little girls paraded around as flower girls the night of the pageant, scattering petals as they walked. Little boys in white coats brought the scepter and crown that a community leader placed on her head while someone played "There She Is," the Miss America theme song.
"I remember the crown had taken weeks to make because there were no glue guns in those days and each of the jewels, collected from numerous homes around town, were sewn onto a large base," Comfort said. "Surely for a moment I did feel like a queen."
Comfort looks back on her time as queen with fondness.
"Small town traditions can sometimes be viewed as silly or obsolete, but the precedent that was set in 1959 has blessed many young women by making us feel special and confident," she said. "It led to me being in the semifinals of the University of Texas Beauty Pageant and the Miss Texas first level interviews. I've been asked to judge numerous events, and I still can spot a young woman who carries herself with confidence and has a personality that could be mentored into a stage presence."
After graduation from high school, Comfort attended the University of Texas, where she received an undergraduate degree in elementary education. She later earned a master's degree in special education from East Texas State University in Commerce, and taught for a few years before she met the late Charles H. Comfort. They were married 34 years. Comfort says she "inherited four children" when they married, and together they had one son. They lived in London, Dallas and Cincinnati, returning to Sulphur Springs in 2003.
"The heart of my life has been spent involved in the work of the church and public speaking," Comfort said. "I love home projects and early mornings in the yard. Nourishing friendships and visiting family is what keeps me busy now. Mine has been a blessed life."
Comfort is looking forward to next June's celebrations.
"I'll be proud to be a part of the 50th dairy festival next summer," she said. "It will be a fun to gather as many of the previous participants together as possible and parade the old queens.
"Remember, old violins play the best music."
(Editor's Note: In June 2009, the Hopkins County Dairy Festival will celebrate its golden anniversary. Over the next 50 weeks, the News-Telegram plans to visit with former Dairy Festival queens to reminisce about the festival, the pageant and what it meant to wear the crown.)