Morton Pumpkin Festival
Gary Alan Rose
The Morton Pumpkin Festival occurs every year near mid-September on Thursday through Saturday, with some pre-festival happenings the day before. People come to this central Illinois town of approximately 16,000 from all over the state and beyond. The festival originated back in 1967 and continues to this day. In Morton, the Libby’s plant manufactures canned pumpkin. They process 500,000 pumpkins a day during the harvest season. Morton, Ill., is known as the “Pumpkin Capital of the World,” and central Illinois fields supply the majority of pumpkins for canning in the United States. Actually, 90% of those pumpkins are grown around an 80 mile radius of Peoria, Ill. Libby’s, a subsidiary of Nestles, has the world’s largest pumpkin factory and calls Morton its “Home.”
The canning process is ongoing during the yearly Pumpkin Festival, and I have an old photo that shows a worker walking beside what looks like a mountain of fresh pumpkins. That process for production has since changed. Now, semis and other trucks are pulled upon a platform and the pumpkins are directly fed into the factory. It is not uncommon to see smaller independent trucks driving through the streets of Morton loaded with pumpkins. A few even seem to jump ship onto the street, getting smashed, shall we say as collateral damage. Pumpkins, by the way, are a good source of vitamins A and C, potassium, and some fiber. But I just like them in pies, cakes and other treats; so I’ll accept the nutritional benefits with it.
During the Pumpkin Festival, the town comes alive to the max. One of the events is tipping the scale for the largest pumpkin contest. Often the winner weighs in at over 1,000 pounds. There is also a Saturday Pumpkin Pancake Breakfast held in one of the larger tents. The fare includes pumpkin pancakes and doughnuts, grilled sausage and coffee. Other foods available at the three to four day event are pumpkin chili, pumpkin ice cream, and pumpkin funnel cakes. At the main food tent are smoked pork chop sandwiches, potato salad, potato chips, and beverages.
Popular events include tricycle races for kids, foot races, carnival rides, a gauntlet of games, and scheduled entertainment. There are several tents to walk through with a variety to browse within each. Then there is the Morton Queen Pageant, and a Princess Pageant for four to five year old girls. We entered our daughter, probably a year too early since she had just turned four a couple days before. She was the youngest of the contestants. They all wore various costumes on the stage and our daughter was decked out in a cowgirl outfit. As fate would have it, our high school neighbor across the street from us won the Morton Queen Pageant. We were happy to get a photo of her in her gown standing beside our little cowgirl daughter.
A popular large scale event was the Pumpkin Chucking Contest where contestants, including various engineers, shot pumpkins from canons, guns, slings, and an assortment of other devices to sail them the furthest for victory. They kept sending them farther each year, so the field where the action took place had to be moved to a larger location due to pumpkin shrapnel encountered by the onlookers. People literally came from all over the United States to enter the shootout!
Of course on Saturday morning the Morton Pumpkin Festival Parade took center stage, as one of largest in central Illinois. It proceeded down its route for a couple of hours at least. One year our truck was commandeered to pull a float. Oh, and our daughter got to ride in a pumpkin shaped orange wagon with all those girls the year she was in the Princess Pageant down the entire route. We have a photo of that too. The last time we attended the parade on a trip back home in 2016, the Budweiser Clydesdales pulled the beer wagon right down Main Street in Morton. Guess what … those huge horses stopped directly in front of where we stood!
One of the last events of the festival was the pumpkin pie eating contest. I would have liked to enter, not really caring to win. I just wanted to eat my fill of those delicious pumpkin pies and gracefully drop out, if that was possible.
Our two kids grew up enjoying this yearly event and we have harvested a load of great memories, but not pumpkins. They were so excited to run the festival grounds with their friends, going on rides, playing carnival games, and just plain having fun. It was great fun for us and other parents too. Meeting up with family, friends, and neighbors in a small town festival atmosphere cannot be duplicated on a bigger stage in a large city. My wife and I grew up in a small town of similar size some miles south of Morton where we knew so many. To be honest, I still miss small town life sometimes.