Corn festivals have universal appeal

 

Africans enjoy traditional Wisconsin harvest celebration

Corn Festival fan Andre Nelson
Corn Festival fan Andre Nelson

 

Some 100,000 people from around the Midwest attended this year’s annual Wisconsin Sweet Corn Festival held August 20-23. The number of visitors to the Corn Festival hasn’t changed much over many years.

Known as the oldest corn festival in Wisconsin, it is now celebrated for four days instead of two days as it started originally. The Festival has been held at Angell Park since 1955, but in 1997 the sweet-corn steamer was changed, so the community rallied together and built a new corn-steaming facility in Sun Prairie.

In Wisconsin, people look forward to the event every year to listen to live music and participate in the carnival rides, beer and food booths, and the main event, where about 75 tons of corn is served to the public. It is Sun Prairie’s major annual event.

Parking costs $5 including admission, and the event is free for children seven years old and younger. The entrance fee per person is $1, and admission is free for those who purchase the Festival buttons.

“I always come here every year and have the kids enjoy the rides and take advantage of the sweet corn that always brings me here,” said Fasidy Jabang from Gambia, a resident of Madison for the past 20 years. “When the corn season starts in Gambia, we enjoy it, [and we] like the way they prepare it here, too. That always reminds me of back home during the corn harvest season.”

Like many African attendees at the festival, Jabang says it is also a business and marketing strategy that can be tried in Africa. People buy not only the corn, but also bottled water and soda for three dollars apiece.

“In Africa…we can come together or form farmers’ associations in villages, towns, and cities. Once a year, on a weekend like this [Saturday festival]…farmers can bring their crops, and individuals can buy it,” said Jabang.

“I know some of the rice farmers [harvest festivals] organized back home are expensive. Even out of reach for farmers. But to get us together once in group on a weekend and sell our products is a good marketing strategy. Other vendors can come, and also farmers can bring their products.”

The Corn Festival has become a custom even for many foreigners, including Africans. At Angell Park, thousands of people queued in line for the boiled ears of corn, paying $7 per serving. They were served up as much corn as they could carry via a conveyor belt that speeds up the corn distribution process. Uncooked corn was also available for $10 per grocery bag.

“The $7 fee is for a corn tote, which is basically a small cardboard box that the steamy corn is placed in. From there, patrons shuck the corn at tables set up for that purpose and can either take it back outside the building and salt it, or have it buttered in exchange for tips. Many of the people doing the buttering are college or high school students,” said Christopher Mertes, editor of The Star  newspaper in Sun Prairie.

“The corn-steaming facility is located on city-owned land in a city park, making the city a partner in the event each year. One of the volunteers who steams the corn each year is member of the city council, but he was a corn-steamer volunteer before he was an alderman.”

The Sun Prairie Corn Festival was first started in 1953. That year, the state’s first corn-eating contest was spiced up with live music, included local talent shows, and ended with fireworks.

For Vi Bergum, the Corn Queen, this is a custom that she thinks will continue for many years to come. “I’ve being doing this for more than 20 years,” said Bergum when asked about her costume for the festival. A retired elementary school teacher, Bergum designed her dress to match the Corn Festival event, earning her the Corn Queen title. Others call her the Countess of Corn.

On Thursday night, the festival started with the Corn Fest Parade, games such as bingo, live music, several carnival rides, and various vendors including handmade crafts all present at Angell Park. The weekend was full of other activities such as storytelling, inflatable games and dancing, not forgetting the beer shelter and helicopter rides for those interested in observing the events from above.

For Andre Nelson, the Festival always lures him and his family to Sun Prairie to witness the fresh corn harvest and meet old and new friends. Visiting the corn festival has been a seasonal fellowship for Nelson and his family for the past two years. He said he meets great people and likes the good food.

“Each time I come here with my family, we really enjoy ourselves… It’s refreshing to come and fellowship with people that we’ve never met…and have a good time with them,” said Andre Nelson from Chicago, who normally stays in Madison until the end of the Corn Festival.

“We always love to come and enjoy the good corn…the kids love it.”

 

Thanks to Issa A. Mansaray and The AfricaPaper Syndication for sharing this story with us. Issa A. Mansaray welcomes reader responses to info@theafricapaper.com.