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Queen Yam

I am the direct descendant of royalty. It’s not something I flaunt too much, but you can curtsey and call me “Her Highness” whenever we’re together.

It started when my mother was a teen and was, according to her, perfect in every way. When I was a teenager, she often reminded me of this. She was so perfect that, in October, during her senior year in high school, she ruled the East Texas hamlet of Gilmer when the biggest event of the year occurred. You’ve probably heard of it because of its notoriety. My mother was Queen Yam XIII of the East Texas Yamboree.

Gilmer is the county seat of Upshur County. When my mom was Queen Yam, in 1950, the population of Gilmer was 4096. The population in 2021 was 4894. It’s where Grammy winners Don Henley (the founding member of the Eagles) and Johnny Mathis were born. Robert McClelland, the surgeon who worked to save the life of John F. Kennedy, as well as Lee Harvey Oswald, was a Gilmerite. Harold Moss, the first African-American mayor of Tacoma, Washington, was also born in Gilmer. And don’t forget me, yours truly, Wimpy Girl. I was delivered by Dr. Ragland in Gilmer Hospital and lived in Gilmer for the first six months of my life. So what this sleepy community lacks in population growth, it makes up for in famous people. Quality always trumps quantity, right?

In case you didn’t know, a yam is not the same as a sweet potato. Any Gilmer resident will be glad to point that out, in case you are ever confused. Yams have a much browner, rougher skin, and the fleshy part is starchy, like a regular potato. The sandy soil of Upshur County provides the perfect growing base for these very special tubers.

The Yamboree actually got started to celebrate the Texas Centennial. In 1935, each county in Texas was given the task of creating a festival to honor their specific area of the Lone Star State. Yams, one of the primary cash crops for Gilmer had been quarantined since the 1920s because of a weevil infestation. When the quarantine lifted in the early 1930s, there was a lot to celebrate so Upshur County decided that they would honor the yam for their festival. They cleverly named the fete Yamboree. Well, it was such a hit that the community decided to make it a yearly event. And, although it was suspended during World War II and recently because of COVID-19, it has been going strongly ever since.

The Yamboree is a four-day event held during the third week of October. Organizers say that the population of Gilmer grows to over 100,000 during that week. Festivities include the Queen’s Coronation Pageant and Ball, a carnival that is held around the town square, two parades, a marching band competition, livestock shows, and a barn dance. For foodies, there are all sorts of baking contests for yam pies, yam cakes, pickled yams, yam preserves, etc. For the kids and more creative folks, there is a yam decorating contest.

I think you get the idea of what this quaint festival is all about, so let’s go back to 1950. How exactly did my mother become Queen? When I was a little girl and enamored with Miss America, I liked to think that my mom won the title because of her beauty and talent, but although, to me, she was the most beautiful woman that ever lived, that was not the case. It all had to do with ticket sales. The Queen’s Race is a rigorous 12-day event where each royal wannabe canvases the community to raise money to fund the festival. The young lady who raises the most money is crowned Queen Yam and acts as an ambassador for the community until a new queen begins her reign the next year. I wasn’t even born when my mother entered the contest, but I could have told all the other candidates that they didn’t stand a chance because my mom was a natural salesperson and loved to talk, talk, talk. It also helped that my grandmother owned a beauty shop, and you know how powerful that can be, especially in a small town.

So, as a kid, every year we went back to Gilmer for the Yamboree. Both of my grandmothers had yam pies waiting for us. My brother Dub and I loved riding the carnival rides and seeing the baby pigs, sheep, goats, and cows. We were city kids so it was a big deal. I loved the parades. My mom often rode in a special car or float as a former queen. It made me smile all over myself when my mom passed by and waved at me. My mom!

About 15 years ago, my mother was the Grand Marshall of the Queen’s Parade. Capt’n Clean had never been to the Yamboree so we did it all, saw it all. We had a blast. Again, my favorite part was the parade. This time my mother led the whole thing in a white open carriage driven by a man in a stovepipe hat and special tuxedo-like duds. The carriage was pulled by Gilmer’s finest equine creature that trotted like a Lipizzan. I think they probably borrowed the carriage from Queen Elizabeth because it was fancy! My mom again, looked beautiful as she waved to the crowd. When her carriage passed by the Capt’n and me she waved, smiled her signature Queen Yam smile, and blew us a kiss. The woman had the class and poise that only comes from being a royal, or from eating a lot of yams, you choose. In Gilmer, Texas, the locals believe they are the same thing.




The 2023 East Texas Yamboree takes place this weekend in Gilmer, Texas. If you are anywhere in the vicinity, check it out. You won’t be sorry.

2023 East Texas Gilmer Yamboree.

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Kathleen Schwertlich
Kathleen Schwertlich
7 months ago

Hi Anel,
I loved hearing about your mom’s Queen title, & her blowing you a kiss from her carriage. Our mom’s had all sorts of stories…my mom was the first female limousine driver in Houston. She made the cover of Houston’s entertainment magazine. It was 1973, & up to that point they thought woman wouldn’t know how to handle traffic, or keep from crying when they’d get lost, & have to ask for directions, plus the men who ran the business thought woman didn’t add a touch of class.
My mom said she would take woman to the beauty shop, or grocery store. Her first client she retained was Ima Hogg, the daughter of Texas past Governor…all Ima’s rich friends began asking for mom, the cofounder of Humble Oil, the lady who’s family donated much of the Houston medical center, the woman who helped create Pace Picanta.
Erma Bombeck hired my mom when she’d come to Houston on her newest book tour.
When Erma rode with her the first time she laid down in the back seat while mom drove, so mom held up the newest book asking her to sign her cook book. Erma said, “Helen I haven’t written a cook book, that title is “How To COPE”…C-O-P-E! “. My mom laughingly said oh I never looked in it because I hate cooking, & Erma said me too!
A year later my mom was at the Rose Parade by herself sitting in the bleachers, & she noticed the lady beside her had a parade program book with Erma on the cover. Mom didn’t know Erma was going to be the grand marshal. She began telling everyone around her that she’d driven her in Houston; no one wanted to listen to her thinking she was old crazy lady…the convertible began to drive by with Erma waving while sitting on the top of the back seat. My mom jumped up yelling and waving, “Hi Erma!”! Erma turned towards mom, a yelled, “Hi Helen! How’s your cooking?!” We heard her while watching TV! That’s when the lady with the program ask for my mom’s autograph.
The Limousine Company started giving my mom famous men, like McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, to drive. They knew she handled the traffic better, faster, new tons of short cuts, & had nerves of steel on the confusing Houston highways…but alas they fired her when one of the drivers over heard her say she was getting off work to pick her grandson up from day care…they didn’t want a grandma as a hired driver..she was 46.


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Copyright © 2023 – Wimpy Girl. All Rights Reserved By Pookie Ryan
This work by Anel “Pookie” Ryan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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