Pumpkins are the harbinger of fall in Illinois. Not only do the gloriously orange fruits decorate our homes and businesses, but we look forward to the aroma and taste of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving dinner. Pumpkin is also Illinois’ official state pie!
The history of canning pumpkins goes back over 100 years in central Illinois. It all began here in Eureka in 1902 when the Dickinson and Company canning factory made a small experimental pack of canned pumpkin. The company, which had been established in 1898, already packed corn, beans, and tomatoes. However, wishing to extend the canning season, they decided to try adding pumpkin to the roster. It was a success. Dickinson and Company continued to expand their business holdings, adding a plant in Washington in 1909 and Morton in 1925.
In 1929 Libby, McNeill, and Libby Company of Chicago purchased all of the Dickinson and Company holdings. This was the start of today’s traditional Thanksgiving favorite – Libby’s canned pumpkin. The pumpkin canning season was a five-to-six week affair from mid-September to early November. By the 1950s Libby’s produced an estimated 15 million cans of pumpkin.
In 1939 the Eureka Community Association was organized to foster community improvements. The Depression-era 1930s had been tough and events in Europe were troublesome. The association decided what the town needed was a community celebration. The decision to have a festival themed after the town’s major crop came on July 31, with a pledge of $684 from various businesses to finance it. Publicity and planning resulted in a successful two-day celebration on October 13 and 14, which crowned Eureka as the Pumpkin Capital of the World.
Nineteen thirty-nine was the first of twelve festivals making up Eureka’s Pumpkin Festival past. The festivals were held annually at first, but were temporarily discontinued during World War II. After resuming in 1946, the festival became a biennial event from 1947 to 1961. The festivals were two-day events, with the town bedecked with banners and pumpkins.
A Pumpkin Festival Queen competition was held for single Eureka women, aged 17 – 20. People could vote for their choice by buying retail items in town, plus the candidates could get extra points by selling advertising in the souvenir booklet. Once voting was over, the top five candidates were questioned by a panel of out-of-town judges during a pageant event and a queen was selected. The remaining four candidates made up the official court.
A wide variety of entertainment took place during each festival. Highlights included the coronation ceremony, massed band concerts, large parade, float judging, distribution of 10,000 free personal-size pumpkin pies, football game, food stands, carnival rides, dances, pie eating contest, exhibits tent, and variety acts such as aerialists, gymnasts, and magicians.
The festival gained national attention, as it was written about in newspapers across the nation and even in a fifth-grade textbook. In 1940 and 1941 a 60+ pound pumpkin was sent to President Roosevelt in the White House via American Airlines, and in 1946 a 36-inch pumpkin pie was flown to Los Angeles and served at a radio show. For several years the Pumpkin Festival Queen and Court would travel to Chicago prior to the festival to meet with Libby, McNeill, and Libby executives and make the round of Chicago television and radio studios. The marketing worked. After 1946 the festival attracted an average of 50,000 visitors. This was phenomenal given the town’s population was only around 2,000 – 3,000 people.
The biggest festival year was 1947. That year Eureka College alumnus Ronald “Dutch” Reagan came for a visit. Reagan, at that time a film actor, crowned the festival queen, opened the first annual Pumpkin Bowl football game, and led the parade on horseback. Illinois Governor Dwight H. Green was also in attendance and rode on the coronation float along with Reagan. Reagan was given his own 36-inch pumpkin pie to enjoy. He was quoted as saying, “Some pumpkin . . . this pie. What shall I do with it? Will someone wrap it up in a paper napkin for me?” That year an estimated 100,000 people came to Eureka to enjoy the festival.
Another big year was 1959 when Eureka celebrated its centennial anniversary. The festival was expanded to three days, and floats and decorations featured a historical theme. All men in town were urged to grow beards. If you did not grow one, you had to wear a shaving permit button or risk being thrown in Lake Eureka. The overall winner of the beard contest was given his choice of electric razors as his prize. Women were required to wear historical-style dresses, petticoats, and bonnets downtown or be fined 25 cents.
In November of 1960 Libby, McNeill, and Libby closed the Eureka canning facility in favor of their more modern facilities in Morton. Eureka continued with their plans to host the 1961 festival, but over 4 inches of rain and the loss of the factory dampened festival enthusiasm. In 1963 the Eureka Community Association announced that the festival would no longer be held. In 1970 Morton’s annual fall festival was renamed the Pumpkin Festival. The town has been successfully holding the annual Morton Pumpkin Festival in September ever since. Today, the Libby’s plant in Morton cans 85% of the world’s canned pumpkin.
In 2015 the Eureka Public Library was awarded a digital imaging grant by the Illinois Secretary of State to create an online digital collection of Eureka Pumpkin Festival history items. Since then, library staff have scanned and photographed over 300 items pertaining to Pumpkin Festival history in Eureka. Photographs, a hat, prize ribbons, a dress, a crown, a scepter, souvenir books, cookbooks, street signs, and more have been shared with the library by community members, the Woodford County Historical Society, and people throughout central Illinois who saved something from the festival. The online collection, which can be found at the Illinois Digital Archives website (http://www.idaillinois.org/digital/collection/p16614coll19/search/), will grow as staff add items to the collection. If you have an item you would like to suggest for the collection, contact Cindy O'Neill at email@example.com.
Want to learn more about the festival and see more images? Join Cindy O'Neill on Zoom for a live presentation on Eureka Pumpkin Festival History:
Tuesday, October 27, 7 pm, Pumpkins, Parades & Pies: Eureka’s Pumpkin Festival Past
Take a step back in time and view a visual history of the Eureka Pumpkin Festival. The festival, which was held between 1939 and 1961, regularly averaged at least 50,000 attendees from all over Illinois and the Midwest. In 1947 film star and Eureka College alumnus Ronald Reagan and Illinois Governor Dwight Green attended, drawing national attention.
Please note: This program will take place online via the Zoom platform, NOT at the Eureka Public Library. Zoom info will be emailed to participants prior to the presentation.
Free program. Registration required before 5 pm on Friday, October 16.
Librarian Cindy O'Neill loves researching local history! She has extensive experience in historical research, genealogy, and archival resource management. She previously worked in the archaeology and museum fields and has Master's degrees in both history and library science. Recent local history projects include a history of the Eureka Pumpkin Festival, the creation of a digital archive of festival photos and memorabilia on the Illinois Digital Archives website, and an architectural history of the Eureka Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).