In August 1975, the staff of Busey Bank produced the first Urbana Sweetcorn Festival. The festival took place in the parking lot across the street from the bank’s 1904 building located at the corner of Main and Race streets.
The festival has operated annually each August to celebrate the many contributions of Urbana, Champaign and the University of Illinois communities’ local businesses, schools, arts, social organizations and agriculture.
The birth of “super-sweet sweetcorn,” a variety that most Americans enjoy at summer picnics, originated at the UI in 1953 with John Laughnan, a corn geneticist and UI professor of botany.
In 2003, when I moved to Urbana, I was struck by the unique social and political dynamics of the Urbana and Champaign communities.
Several years later, one of our local mayors jokingly commented that he needed a passport to cross Wright Street, the dividing line between Champaign and Urbana, to attend a meeting.
When asked about his comment, the mayor stated that Urbana, Champaign and the UI are unique communities that operate very well independently.
However, whenever a special emergency arises in one community, the other communities always come together to provide assistance when needed.
As planning for the 2009 Sweetcorn Festival took shape, I asked Kristine Campbell of the UI’s Office of Public Engagement and Susan Toalson of the Urbana Business Association if it would be possible to develop one day of children’s educational programming and local music performances.
These events would emphasize that although they are unique, the three communities are strongest when they come together as one.
The festival’s One Community Together performance stage and educational programming included activities and exhibits by WILL and the university’s Family Resiliency Center, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, College of Engineering, Department of Computer Science; and musical performances by the Bow-Dacious String Band, Mo’Betta Jazz Band, Robert E. Brown Center for World Music, Boneyard Jazz Quartet, The Prairie Dogs, Big Grove Zydeco Band and the Marching Illini.
The following year, the OCT programming was extended to two days of musical performances by local musicians from the Urbana, Champaign and university communities.
Children’s educational activities were sponsored by members of the Champaign County Museums Network. The 2010 programming concluded with a shared performance of the Urbana, Central and Centennial high school marching bands. This was the first time the three bands, under the direction of the UI band director, performed together publicly to support each other’s band programs during the Sweetcorn Festival.
Today, the Sweetcorn Festival’s OTC programming continues to include hands-on educational activities for children of all ages and musical performances by local ensembles performing pieces from around the world.
This programming is produced by many of the organizations that are part of the Champaign County Museums Network. This year, it is financially supported by the UI’s Spurlock Museum and the UI Library’s Sousa Archives and Center for American Music.
This year’s performance includes Tom Wallace’s arrangement of Margaret Cobb and Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby” by the Urbana, Central and Centennial high school bands. It will be led by the director of the Marching Illini, Barry Houser.
For further information about this year’s OCT programming on Saturday, call the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music at 217-333-4577. For a complete schedule of the festival’s performances and other family programming, visit urbanasweetcornfestival.com/.