By CARL MARIO NUDI
The Hernando de Soto Historical Society-sponsored Heintz & Becker De Soto Seafood Festival will be held March 24 through 26 at Sutton and Lamb Parks in Palmetto.
And along with the great seafood, live entertainment, interesting arts and crafts, and fun children’s activities, Hernando de Soto and his Crewe of conquistadors will be there decked out in their 16th century costumes aboard the San Cristobal ship.
Over the past 30 years the Seafood Festival has been part of the de Soto Heritage Festival, which has events throughout the year, with most of them planned for the end of March through April.
This series of events has given the community a chance to learn about the historical society with the Crewe of Spanish conquistadors and the de Soto Queen and her Court, being the most visible faces of the society in the community.
A new Hernando de Soto and De Soto Queen are elected each year.
Zeke Eckersen was elected at the de Soto Ball last April to portray Hernando de Soto at historical society activities and other community events.
Sarah Adams was chosen to be De Soto Queen the same night.
As De Soto, Eckersen wears a special feathered helmet and colorful costume based on the Spanish conquistador attire of the shiny chrome-plated Morion helmet, wide leather belt and corsair swords in scabbards.
When Hernando and his Crewe show up at an event, it has always been quite an impressive sight.
“It’s truly an honor to be the 70th De Soto,” Eckersen said, “and to represent the Hernando de Soto Historical Society.”
The Parrish resident joined the society in 2009 and was elected to the Crewe six years ago.
He joined the society after several of his friends who were members talked him into going to the annual Grand Parade and other events during a De Soto Heritage Festival season.
Eckersen has been in public service most his adult life, serving seven years in the military and 28 years as a firefighter with the Cedar Hammock Fire Control District.
“I believed in their mission to raise money and to help people,” he said. “I’ve grown to love this organization and glad I joined.”
Since he first donned the special costume and regalia of Hernando de Soto at the De Soto Ball last April, Eckersen has been busy representing the society at local community events and other festivals throughout the United States.
“It has been an awesome, awesome experience,” he said. “I’m truly honored to have been voted in as Hernando.
“It’s been like a dream, and I’ve gotten a lot out of it,” Eckersen said.
One benefit he has gained has been community recognition.
Eckersen said people come up to him at stores or restaurants even when he is not dressed as Hernando.
“Every time I leave the house I try to represent the organization in a positive way,” he said. “I have a lot of pride in this position and people expect you to do the right thing.”
The 57 year old said he has to give credit to his “great Crewe and two very special young ladies,” the queen and princess of the court, for his successful year.
“They’re always ready for the next event,” he said.
Eckersen said he had some experience with how special the Hernando de Soto Historical Society was before he joined when his oldest daughter, Jenna, was in the de Soto Queen’s Court in 2008.
“That was another reason to join the de Soto Society,” he said. “Jenna had such a great time.”
Another daughter, Hannah, was picked as Princess of the Court three years ago.
His wife, Kelly, and their five children have supported Eckersen throughout his year as Hernando de Soto.
Along with attending all of the society events, Hernando, the Crewe, and the queen’s court are out in the community talking about the society’s mission of preserving Manatee County’s Spanish history and culture, said Ray Niecestro, director of the society.
The Hernando de Soto Historical Society was founded in 1939, a year after the Swanton Commission, created by the United States Congress, designated Shaw’s Point near the mouth of the Manatee River as the most likely spot for de Soto to have anchored his ships and come ashore in Florida.
The first society event organized was the grand parade and from that the de Soto Heritage Festival grew.
Niecestro said attending all the society events were not the only activities of Hernando de Soto.
De Soto and his Crewe, dressed in their colorful 16th century costumes, made several trips to area schools to talk about the Spanish explorer and his conquistadors.
They told the students about de Soto anchoring his ships at Shaw’s Point and his travels around the Southeastern United States.
Many times the de Soto Queen and some of her court will accompany the Crewe to the schools and other community events.
It is very exciting for the children when they see the Crewe in their costumes and the Queen’s Court in their gowns come into their classroom.
“The children light up,” Niecestro said. “There are several videos on YouTube of the kids running up to Hernando because they’re interested in his costume.”
Niecestro said the de Soto Historical Society has another mission besides educating the community about local Spanish history and culture.
Helping other community organizations through the de Soto Heritage Foundation has always been a key function of the de Soto Historical Society, he said.
“The foundation gives away between $30,000 and $50,000 a year to several local groups,” Niecestro said, “and provides college scholarships to the de Soto Queen and her Court.”
Some of the local charitable groups the de Soto Heritage Foundation supports are PACE Center for Girls, Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County and Miracle League of Manasota, an organization that provides opportunities for children with disabilities to play baseball.
“The society not only supports these organizations through the foundation, but our members also volunteer their time,” Niecestro said.
Several de Soto Historical Society members, along with the de Soto Crewe and Queen’s Court, will be at the opening game of the Miracle League of Manasota at 7:30 p.m., March 18, at the Longwood Run Park field in Sarasota, he said.
The foundation also supports Bradenton’s Sister City relationship with Barcarrota, Spain, the birthplace of the Spanish explorer.
They fund delegate trips to Barcarrota’s annual fiesta, and through a generous gift from De Soto member Art Engelhardt maintain an annual student exchange program with the city in Spain, according to the organization’s website.
Niecestro said the society and foundation are in the early planning stages of constructing a cultural museum and events venue on 17th Street West in Bradenton.
He said the structure will be modeled after a plaza and building in Barcarrota.
All of these foundation-giving activities are made possible through the fund-raising events of the De Soto Historical Society, Niecestro said.
Along with the Seafood Festival, some of the other de Soto Heritage Festival events scheduled are the Bottle Boat Regatta, April 8, at the Palma Sola Causeway; the Children’s Parade, April 14, along 10th Avenue West in Palmetto; the Fashion Show and Musical Revue, April 25; followed by the Queen Selection Banquet, April 26.
All of these exciting goings-on will culminate with two very special events.
The de Soto Ball, where the new Hernando de Soto and De Soto Queen and Princess are to be installed, will be held April 28.
Then on April 29, the De Soto Grand Parade will proceed down Manatee Avenue West with more than 150 entries of bands, marchers and floats.
“The parade draws crowds of 250,000 to 280,000,” Niecestro said. “It’s the most attended event during the heritage festival.”
For more information on the Hernando de Soto Historical Society and all of the upcoming events they sponsor during the de Soto Heritage Festival, visit www.desotohq.com.