80 tons of sweet corn  gone in two days

John Oncken

“We’ve come here for many years, it’s the corn!”

“Wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

“We brought our grand kids.”

“Nothing like sweet corn at the Sun Prairie Corn Fest.”

Those are just a few of the reasons given for attending the Sun Prairie Corn Fest last weekend by people I asked at random as they were eating corn on the cob. I suspect there are about as many reasons why folks join the crowds at Angell Park as there were people attending this annual event that began in 1953. 

The beginning

From a rather humble beginning on Aug. 29 and 30, 1953 when some 6,000 people ate 13,000 ears of sweet corn covered with 200 pounds of butter to 6,000 people, to 100,000 people today... that's growth!

Right from the field ready for steaming.

Actually, that sounds like a rather successful first time event and the then-small city of  Sun Prairie, (probably about 5,000 people in size) must have agreed because it continued and has been growing stronger ever since. The first two corn fests were held on a city street and in 1955, the third corn fest moved to Angell Park where there was more room. 

Note - auto racing fans will know that Angell Park is also home to the historic one third mile clay race track which for decades has been known as the leading midget racing complex in the US. The track still hosts racing programs most Sunday nights during the summer including during the corn festival.

Four days

Over the years the Sun Prairie Corn Festival has developed into a four-day event beginning with a parade Thursday night, live entertainment. a carnival and food and games on Friday and Saturday. The sweet corn eating begins on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. and runs until 7 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday.

C of C runs it

Ann Smith, president and other employees of the Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce oversee the big event which is Sun Prairie’s premier event of the year. 

Ann Smith, President of the Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce is the “go to” person at Corn Fest.

“The event really started as a salute to Wisconsin and area agriculture,” she says. “There are some 200 volunteers from city organizations supervising various committees and we do have a group of high school students to keep the grounds clean and in order.”

"The corn comes from Del Monte Foods who has three vegetable processing plants in Wisconsin: at Cambria, Markesan and Plover. The corn came from the Coloma area,” Smith continues. “They have sweet corn all around central Wisconsin thus are able to provide us with sweet corn in the perfect stage of maturity for eating regardless of the local weather conditions. They usually deliver two 20 ton semis of corn a day to our steaming facility about  mile away. 

For the first 24 years of the Corn Fest, Stokely USA in Sun Prairie — located a short block away from Angell Park — closed in the late 1990s provided the corn. 

"We (the Chamber of Commerce) along with the help of many businesses and individuals then built a corn cooking building," Smith says. 

The community saw the importance of  protecting the future of the Sweet Corn Festival as an “event” and source of income for many community service projects.

All steamed up

The just-harvested sweet corn is steamed in five retorts inside the two-story building.  “This is a hot place to be during the cooking,” a worker said. “It gets well over 100 degrees in the back of the building."

Sweet corn with lots of butter is the ultimate in eating.

After the steaming the corn is hauled to the corn building at Angell Park and distributed to the waiting crowd who can buy eight ear totes at $8 or individual ears at $2 apiece. After the husks are removed buyers can have the ears slathered with butter by volunteers with butter quarters in big pans and and salt from hanging salt shakers.  

Eat or take

Some take the corn home, many eat it on site while standing, walking or sitting at a few picnic tables. Admittedly, eating an ear of sweet corn can be a messy, buttery business but who complains?  After all, it’s sweet corn direct from the farm, cooked locally and is all natural as one can see.

Husking your corn is half the fun.

My guess: this is the first time many of the youngsters have eaten corn on the cob: perhaps many homes never serve this delicacy at home because of the trend to not having sit down meals anymore and the movement away from home cooking.  

The Sun Prairie Corn Fest has changed over the years with the addition of a bigger carnival running for four days, additional food and drink stands, games of many kinds and a big array of business displays. In fact, it’s almost a county fair situated on a small space.

And, the people came. Ann Smith and the Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce expected about 100,000 visitors who would eat and/or take home near 80 tons of corn, given good weather. And, the weather was great! Saturday was a perfect day and while an early Sunday morning shower might have caused some dismay, the sun came out mid morning and the crowd came to eat and enjoy and have fun.

You are good if you can walk, carry things and eat sweet corn, all at the same time.

The oldest

The Sun Prairie Corn Festival claims to be the state’s oldest such event and I don’t doubt it. For one thing, the sweet corn canning industry has changed so much. I well remember the big canning factories at Sun Prairie, Waunakee, Arlington and in almost every small town, now all gone. And, the early morning radio announcements telling workers when to report to work. 

Wisconsin remains one of the leading vegetable (and sweet corn) growing states in the US although many processing plants have closed over the years and the industry has consolidated. A long-ago news release from Stokley Van Camp sort of tells a story. 

November 2, 1982 - Stokely-Van Camp Inc., announced it will discontinue its food processing operations at seasonal canning plants at Frederic, Cumberland and Plymouth, Wis; William B. Stokely III, chairman of the board, said Tuesday the company has earned inadequate returns in the past few years to run these canneries.

Always change

And so it goes. Farming changes, food processing changes, peoples wants change.  Close by the location where the Sun Prairie Canning Company operated for almost 100 years and employed nearly 200 people, today, the annual Corn Fest with the sweet corn, the carnival  and a wide variety of family activities, stage shows, musical entertainment, mini-golf, a craft show, specialty attractions, and a parade on Thursday night draws people from afar.

But, it’s still the sweet corn that reigns supreme. 

Be there next year - it’s a destination to remember.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.