Hoopeston festival a rich, and corny, tradition

Hoopeston festival a rich, and corny, tradition

HOOPESTON – From a seat on a helicopter hovering near McFerren Park Sunday, the 64th National Sweetcorn Festival looked just like any other fair, with distinct sections of rides, games, food vendors and flea market finds.

But in the middle of a basketball court, nearly 20 volunteers were scurrying around shucking, sorting, and boiling about 8 tons of corn to give away to the hundreds of people lined up for what they come for – free buttered and salted sweet corn.

"It's awesome. We've waited a year for this," said Michael Gottlieb of Rantoul as he gnawed at his corn.

This marked the second visit for the Gottlieb family, who brought along their seven children to the festivities.

Under a shade tree near the basketball court, all nine Gottliebs sat leisurely around a blanket eating their corn and tossing the barren cobs into a nearby trash can.

Then they held forth in the song they made up on the drive over:

"It's time for corn, it's time for corn, aren't you glad that you were born, it's time for corn, it's time for corn, we're so happy let's honk the horn," sang the kids – Benjamin, 6; Gabrielle, 8; Kimberly, 8; Zachariah, 10; CJ, 11; Rhiana, 12; and Josh, 16.

"Then we honk the horn," explained their mother, Kristie.

The National Sweetcorn Festival began in 1941, an adaptation of the Hoopeston Sweetcorn Festival that began in 1938. It was discontinued during World War II, after which the Hoopeston Jaycees reorganized and sponsored the festival.

For Carolyn Eyrich-Mastin, who has organized the sweet corn giveaway for the past three years, this year's theme is just the reason she volunteers.

"This statement right there is why," Eyrich-Mastin said as she pointed to a button with the festival's logo on it that read "Service to Humanity Is the Best Work of Life!"

"That's the last line of the Jaycee creed," she said.

Behind her, a 1915 Frick steam engine and 1912 Port Huron steam engine forced steam into four water troughs – boiling the corn that had been sorted into makeshift colanders. The colanders were adapted from 35-gallon metal trash cans.

Volunteers shovel corn into a small conveyor that carries it up toward a corn husker, where it's loaded into a machine by even more volunteers, then dropped into another water trough, where it's rinsed and sorted.

Running at full capacity, the machine can husk 120 ears of corn per minute, Eyrich-Mastin said.

After 15 minutes in boiling water, the corn is lifted in its colander and carried to a table, where it's buttered and salted. The corn, once brought from local canning companies, is now trucked in from Goshen, Ind.

Eyrich-Mastin said they bought about 25 tons of corn for this weekend.

As she was serving up corn, other volunteers were offering up prayers.

The God Mobile, sponsored by Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship International based in California, parked nearby.

"Jesus. Jesus brought us out," said Dennis Horn, a volunteer from Decatur. "Everywhere we get a chance, everywhere from northern to southern Illinois, we get out and try to get some people saved."

Horn, wearing a T-Shirt that read "My way is the highway – God", said the God Mobile travels to various events like the Sweetcorn Festival to help people spiritually.

"The majority of the people who come up here are teenagers looking for some answers ... searching for truth," Horn said.

Visitors to the God Mobile can fill out a brief questionnaire and, if they choose, pray with a volunteer, Horn said.

"Yesterday and the day before, 69 people said the prayer of salvation. Even if it's just one, it'll be worth it," Horn said.

Ohio contestant is this year's National Sweetheart

HOOPESTON – The National Sweetheart Pageant began in 1938 as Miss Sweetcorn.

In 1940, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin sent their own contestants to Hoopeston to vie for the title. The name subsequently changed in 1941 to the National Sweetheart pageant.

In 1952, the first runners-up from their respective states' Miss America pageants were invited to attend. Judges from the Miss America circuit were also invited to judge.

The National Sweetheart Pageant has since become a training pageant for those who want to re-enter their states' Miss America competitions.

Eight contestants from the National Sweetheart Pageant have become Miss America. The competition includes swimsuit, evening-gown and talent competitions.

This year's winners are:

– Miss Ohio Erica Gelhaus, Miss National Sweetheart.

– Miss Michigan Ashlee Baracy, First Runner Up.

– Miss Louisiana Jennifer Soileau, Second Runner Up.

– Miss District of Columbia Michelle Crosby, Third Runner Up.

– Miss Georgia Caitlin Andrews, Fourth Runner Up and Overall Talent.

– Miss New Mexico Sherry McDowell, Miss Congeniality.

– Miss New Hampshire Natalie Shaw, Pat Musk Non-Finalist Talent Award.

– Miss Utah Sarah Pettit, Producers Award.

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