Community Spirit

A Profile in Pumpkin
by Jonathan Wright
photography by Don Pyles

Growing up in Morton, one never forgets the sense of anticipation that takes hold in the week or two leading up to the Pumpkin Festival. Though the school year has just begun, the festival brings with it a restless feeling not unlike those days leading up to summer vacation. For many, it is the true marker of the end of the summer.

This is especially true if you attended Jefferson Elementary, the grounds of which are swallowed up by the festival for one week every September. If you were fortunate enough to attend class on the building’s western side, a mere glance out the window would allow you to monitor the daily progress of the crew setting up those giant tents and rides, sparking a torrent of in-class daydreams to give your teacher fits!

Clearly the Pumpkin Festival was the indisputable highlight of the year, and here, you were at the epicenter of this hubbub of pumpkin-related activity. If the range of open space available to us kids at recess time was drastically, if temporarily, cut, we could tolerate it—we would make that sacrifice to the greater good.

Other highlights, as I remember, were the parades. The Pumpkin Festival Parade takes place on Saturday morning, with the entire town on hand for the festivities, and on Thursday evening, the Morton Lions Club sponsors the Kiddie Parade. I can fondly recall racing the other kids into the street to snag as much candy as I could shove into my pockets, leaving with a heaping supply of sugary provisions sufficient to last until Halloween. (I’m quite sure that this ritual played a role in developing the sweet tooth which plagues me to this day!)

Later, although we might outgrow our childlike zeal, our affection for the Pumpkin Festival would remain steadfast. For those who moved away, it’s the one time of year, other than Christmas or Thanksgiving, that is most likely to draw you back for a visit. For those who never left, it’s quite likely you’re a volunteer—according to Mike Badgerow, Executive Director of the Morton Chamber of Commerce, more than 2,000 people volunteer for the Festival each year, and that’s just the number that can be catalogued!

Pumpkin Love

Greg and Lori Daniel first met at the Pumpkin Festival, and during their 23 years of marriage, it has become a tradition. The couple purchased their first home at the corner of First and Madison streets, in the heart of the festival. “It was a delight to be in the midst of the festival,” Lori said. “When our kids were small, we set up booths and sold things in the front yard.” Sitting on the street corner in front of their home and watching the festival take shape is still a precious memory for the Daniel family.

Dr. Erik and Krista Opperman’s first date in 1976 was at the Pumpkin Festival, and five years later, he proposed to Krista on festival weekend. “It’s a nice connection,” Erik said of the festival. “We both grew up in town and it’s a big event for Morton.” Although she is not fond of carnival rides, Erik remembers his wife accompanying him on the “Paratrooper” ride on their first date. “Maybe she was trying to impress me,” he said with a laugh. “She doesn’t ride carnival rides, before or since.” Now the couple enjoys every night of the festival, eating pork chop sandwiches, watching the parade with family and visiting with friends.

The pumpkin capital of the world

Hometown festivals are not unusual in central Illinois—think Tremont’s Turkey Festival, Pekin’s Marigold Festival or Washington’s Cherry Festival, wonderful celebrations all. What is unique about the Pumpkin Festival is the extent to which the identity of the town is wrapped up in its concept.

If you were to peruse the Business White Pages section of the phone book for the Greater Peoria Tri-County Area, you’d find five businesses whose name begins with the word pumpkin, each of them located in Morton. Driving along I-74, you may notice the bright orange pumpkin which serves as the first “o” in “Morton” on the town’s water tower. A pumpkin is prominently featured in the Morton Chamber logo and is the namesake for its website, Most significantly, of course, is the Nestlé/Libby’s plant, the No. 1 pumpkin-packing plant in the nation, whose billboard at the corner of Morton Ave. and Jackson St. welcomes visitors to town.

While the growing and canning season lasts only months, the pumpkin motif is a year-round phenomenon. In short, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the town of Morton without its ubiquitous pumpkin theme. Besides lending the town an identity, it provides a conceptual flag around which to rally, bolstering the spirit of camaraderie which is so vital to a small community.

In 1978, Illinois Governor James Thompson officially declared Morton “The Pumpkin Capital of the World.” It is a title claimed by a number of other cities, most notably Half Moon Bay, Calif.; Circleville, Ohio; and Floydada, Tex. A quick Google search will reveal an astonishing number of other towns across the country with some claim to the beloved orange orb—Hartsburg, Mo.; Animosa, Iowa; Anoka, Minn.; Allardt, Tenn.; Keene, N.H.; and Calabasas, Calif., to name a handful. Over the last few decades, the pumpkin’s place in popular culture has skyrocketed.

Badgerow smiles good-naturedly when asked about rivalries among the various contenders for the pumpkin crown. “A friendly rivalry, yes,” he acknowledges. “Especially with Half Moon Bay. At one time there was even a radio station that did a call-in competition to see who would get the most votes as the ‘Pumpkin Capital of the World.’ Morton won.”

He continues, pointing out the differences between Morton’s Pumpkin Festival and Half Moon Bay’s Art & Pumpkin Festival, which celebrates its 37th year this October. “We celebrate the harvest of the canning pumpkin, and they celebrate the art of decorating—what people would call the jack-o’-lantern-style pumpkin. Theirs is more of an arts festival; ours is a small-town community festival.”

Scott Witzig, Executive Director of the Morton Community Foundation and former Chamber Director, says that pride in the community prompts him to use the capital phrase as an icebreaker. “Just about any place I’ve ever gone…when it’s time to introduce yourself, it’s fun to say, ‘I’m from Morton, Illinois, and we’re the pumpkin capital of the world.’ It really sparks some fun questions,” he said.

For many, the town’s motto is not as important as what its residents epitomize, especially during the festival. “I just love Morton. It seems like everyone sticks together and helps each other out during the festival—it’s a perk of a small town,” said Dawn Carius, whose husband owns the Morton Dairy Queen. “It’s a fun thing—I hope it doesn’t change—but it’s seemingly a safe place for a group of kids to be, a nice place for them to be able to run around.

We live down there [during the Festival]!” she added, echoing the sentiments of many other Morton residents.

Historical roots

Morton’s claim to be the “Pumpkin Capital of the World” is arguably the strongest of any town’s due to the Nestlé/Libby’s packing plant, where more than 85 percent of the world’s canned pumpkin is processed. The plant dates back to 1925, when it was first constructed by the Dickinson Canning Company, which had previously built plants in Washington and Eureka. It produced canned sweet corn, peas and pumpkin, and, for a brief time, pork/apple rations for American troops during World War II.

In those days, the town of Eureka laid claim to the “Pumpkin Capital of the World” title. Its canning factory was established in 1895, and an annual pumpkin festival and parade became hallmarks of the harvest season. Interestingly, during the winter of 1944-1945, a number of German POWs were housed on the Eureka College campus and marched daily to work at the factory. In 1947, Eureka College alumnus and film star Ronald Reagan returned to town to serve as grand marshal in that year’s parade.

By the end of the 1950s, the Libby Corporation closed the Eureka plant and consolidated its operations in Morton, where it has remained ever since. In the ’70s, the plant was purchased by Nestlé, who kept the Libby’s brand name. Over the years, Libby’s developed its own special strain of the Dickinson pumpkin, known for its rich, golden color and creamy texture. According to the Nestlé website, “Libby’s Dickinson Select pumpkins are grown exclusively in the rich farmlands around Morton, Illinois.” Approximately 5,000 acres of Dickinson Select pumpkins are planted each year, exclusively for the Libby’s brand.

More than 2,000 volunteers make the Pumpkin Festival run like clockwork. Above, Susan Pyles and Cathy Reynolds. Below, Don and Ruthie Roth.

The festival tradition

The Morton Pumpkin Festival was started in 1967, but the town’s small-town festival tradition goes back to the turn of the century. Prior to 1934, the town hosted a festival in various incarnations— Carnival Days, the Morton Colt & Livestock Show, the Tazewell County Fair. First held in 1935, the Morton Fall Festival would remain the town’s festival namesake into the early ‘60s, although it was not held every year.

In 1967, after four years without a festival, the Chamber of Commerce brought the Pumpkin Festival to Morton. “There’s been a long history of festivals [in Morton], but until 1967 when we started the Pumpkin Festival, there wasn’t actually something you could hang your hat on,” explained Badgerow. It has remained the premier event of the town ever since.

Approximately 50-70,000 people attend the four-day extravaganza each year. In addition to the rides and merchant tents, many people come for the unique food items (see “A Culinary Pumpkin Patch” on page 22). In conjunction with the festival, major activities include the Pumpkin Decorating Contest, Pumpkin Cookery Contest, Pumpkin Weigh-Off and Downtown Window Display Contest, plus the ever-popular Pumpkin Princess Pageant.

The Morton Public Library plays host to an annual art show sponsored by the Morton Art Guild, as well as a photography show, now in its second year. There is a craft show, a quilt show and musical entertainment for all ages, including a lip sync contest. For sports fans, there are tournaments for tennis, softball and disc golf, a high school soccer invitational and a 10K/2-mile run/ walk, plus the Big Wheel Race and Soapbox Derby for the kids.

And don’t forget the parades—Thursday’s Kiddie Parade and Saturday morning’s official Pumpkin Festival Parade, well known for its enthusiastic attendees who set up lawn chairs along the parade route for days in advance! Jordan Rocke, Director of Rocke’s Meating Haus, offered his advice for prime seating. “There’s a joke in Morton in my generation: Who’s going to put the first chair out? Usually Wednesday is the first day, sometimes on Tuesday, and if you don’t put one out by Friday, you’re not getting a spot.”

Besides participating in the window display competition, area businesses support the festival each year in a variety of ways. As one of its largest sponsors, Nestlé provides financial support and, most importantly, the huge quantities of pumpkin required. They are also direct sponsors of the Pumpkin Cookery Contest, the 10K race, the Pumpkin Weigh-Off and the Soapbox Derby. For years, Ackerman Farms has donated pumpkins for the Pumpkin Decorating Contest, while Rocke’s sells its meats to the Chamber at a reduced price. Many other businesses and community organizations offer help ranging from financial support and in-kind donations to equipment, specialized skills and storage space throughout the year.

Putting it all together

When asked about the Chamber’s preparations for the Pumpkin Festival, Badgerow answers by leaving the room and returning with a giant binder overflowing with paperwork. “This,” he says, “is only related to the food venues.”

When we spoke in mid-June, the Chamber was beginning to jump into “implementation mode” for this year’s festival, but was already in the planning stages for 2008. Events Coordinator Jamie Sanders had spent the prior two weeks ordering food, while Badgerow was on the phone with entertainment acts for next year. From July until September, the Chamber phone rings off the hook with calls from volunteers, entrants for the parade, participants in the merchant and craft tents and more.

“The thing that has impressed me most since I took this job is the critical role of the volunteers,” says Sanders. “I have over 40 volunteer chairpersons, and each of them has a committee—or several committees—under them…most of them have worked this festival before, so they’re old pros.”

Like a finely tuned machine, the Chamber has even implemented a form of succession planning to smooth the volunteer process. Each chairperson identifies someone who will come in and eventually take over the committee when the current chair passes on the mantle, and the system has worked well.

Don Farden welcomes you to the Pop & Chop Tent.

“A good example is our 10K run,” says Badgerow. “We’ve now been through three leadership changes seamlessly, and each year it’s increased in its professionalism and its ability to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. Our role [at the Chamber] is to empower the volunteers to make it happen.”

Area businesses and organizations provide volunteers en masse. “There are over 2,000 that we can actually catalogue, but there’s actually more than that, because there are so many different events and participation levels between the companies, notfor- profit organizations, churches and schools,” says Badgerow.

It’s true—while researching this story, we were overwhelmed with volunteers willing to share their stories with us. “It’s amazing how all the volunteers work together for the same goal. Nobody’s trying to get noticed…people just work for the community,” explained Don Farden, who runs the Pop & Chop Tent.

In the end, the Pumpkin Festival is a treasure trove of memories for all involved. The 2007 Pumpkin Festival, with the theme “Pumpkins Go Hawaiian,” will take place in Morton from September 12 through 15. a&s