PLYMOUTH – “How did it all start?”
You might well ask yourself this question as the Marshall County Blueberry Festival gears up for its 45th Anniversary and its 46th season this Labor Day weekend. It all harks back to a historical phenomenon in Marshall County: blueberries, blueberries, blueberries!
For the scoop, you need to look back to 1966. In that year, Plymouth was celebrating its sesquicentennial. As a part of the festivities, a group of citizens planned and led a picnic in Centennial Park complete with food and games. The event was so well received that the group decided to begin an annual festival to be held on Labor Day weekend. Thus, in 1967, the first Blueberry Festival was instituted.
Why blueberries? Enter Sherrie Martin, new festival coordinator this year. She estimates that at that time, Marshall County was producing approximately one third of the blueberries grown in Indiana. “There were three or four large blueberry plantations,” she said. “Now there are only two,” she continued. That explains the heavy focus on blueberries at a time, in this day and age, when the fruit is not necessarily readily available in stores.
While only in her current job for a month, Martin is no stranger to the festival. In fact, she was one of the organizers of the 1966 picnic. She has served on the Board of Directors for almost 12 years—four terms, with a year off in the middle as required by the bylaws.
“The Blueberry Festival has grown tremendously over the years,” she noted. From a beginning with only a few vendors and craft booths, this year’s event will boast over 130 food vendors, 120 commercial displays, and about 450 craft booths. “The Marshall County Blueberry Festival is now the largest four-day festival in Indiana,” she pointed out.
The festival now requires 29 different committees and loads of volunteers, all coordinated by one paid employee — Martin.
“The Blueberry Festival is new and exciting every year,” said board treasurer Don Morrison. “When board members attend various pertinent conventions, people are always amazed that we can run such a large festival with only one staff person. Each committee needs several to many volunteers,” he concluded.
Morrison, as board member and treasurer, chairs the Bank Committee. This group provides a place for vendors to exchange their money for smaller denominations. For would-be robbers, this location is secured with police presence. As he points out, a rotating schedule of volunteer tellers is needed, just as the other committees need volunteers.
The Blueberry Festival parade is another event which has grown over the years. Martin points out that it used to start at the park. Now, it begins at Plymouth High School and covers a much longer route through town
“New and exciting” additions to this year’s festival include an adult pedal tractor pull to compliment the well-established kids’ pull. Other new events this year include the BMX (bicycle moto cross) shows sponsored by Monster Energy and Coca Cola Bottling Company of Plymouth and sky diving by Plymouth Sky Sports. The sky divers will parachute into the fireworks field 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and on Sunday as soon as the hot air balloons clear the sky.
In addition, the Board of Directors will continue its personal effort to raise money for college scholarships through its booth entitled “All Things Blueberry.” The booth sells gum, suckers, jam, muffin mix, pancake mix, syrup, barbeque sauce, mustard, coffee, bagels, and other items, all with a blueberry flavor or with blueberries in the ingredients. All proceeds from the booth are used for scholarships for Marshall County students. Last year, in its inaugural operation, the booth cleared $1,000, which was used for two $500 scholarships.
Martin said, “Over the years, I like the fact that the Blueberry Festival has remained family-oriented. Admission is free (although there might be a parking charge). No alcohol is allowed. The class entertainment provided each year is appropriate for families. Also, many activities are scheduled especially for children. These include animals from the Potawatomi Zoo, story time with Miss Blueberry, and Dog Day, among others.
No pets or animals are allowed on site except those brought in to perform. On Dog Day this year, the Indiana State Police will demonstrate working police dogs, and seeing-eye dogs will be displayed.
Martin seconded Morrison’s call for volunteers. “Hands-on” workers are needed for everything from driving stakes in the ground to marking off booths. Workers join a committee of their choice and, over time, work up to whatever level of leadership or involvement they want, including membership on the fifteen-member Board. Last-minute sign-ups can be handled by calling Martin at her office, 574-936-5020. However, an ideal opportunity to join next year’s festival effort is coming up on September 10. Then, the Board of Directors will meet at 7 p.m. upstairs in the old firehouse on Center St. to report and evaluate this year’s event. All board meetings are open to the public. At the meeting, volunteers can get a better handle on the scope of the operation. They can also make Martin or any of the Board members aware that they are interested in getting involved.
As Morrison said,”I anticipate the Marshall County Blueberry Festival lasting many more years.”