Morton claims its title as Pumpkin Capital of the World because 90% of the world’s canned pumpkin is processed in the village at the Libby’s canning factory. Opened in 1925, the factory has been exclusively processing pumpkins since 1970. It’s only natural the community should celebrate this claim to fame and for the past 56 years, Morton has held a Fall Festival to honor its pumpkin heritage.
In 1978, Illinois Governor James Thompson officially declared Morton “The Pumpkin Capital of the World.” In 1987 the Festival was mentioned on ABC’s Good Morning America. The Food Network featured the Festival on March 9, 2003 in “All American Festivals: Morton Pumpkin Festival.”
The Libby’s plant was built in 1925 by Dickinson Canning Company to process corn, peas, and string beans, and in 1929 the canneries in Morton, Washington and Eureka merged their business with Libby’s. In 1959, the plant stopped packing peas and in 1973 the plant stopped canning sweet corn. By 1970, the Eureka pumpkin plant had closed and operations for canning pumpkins were moved to Morton. Later Libby’s was sold to Nestle. As part of the second Festival in 1968 Libby’s allowed continuous tours of their processing plant during the Festival. The plant tours continued until the 2000s when events made the tours no longer possible.
Festivals had been held in Morton off and on since the 1920s but had been dormant for four years when Bob Humphrey, an area businessman, and the Morton Chamber of Commerce decided to plan a Festival in 1967. Originally planned to be in the downtown area – the Festival grew too large and was moved to W. Jefferson street and “in the general vicinity of the Tuloma offices,” according to an article in the Tazewell County News. “All the downtown parking lots are filled by the displays, exhibits, and carnival rides we have coming in,” said Festival Chairman Bob Humphreys. In subsequent years it was held in an open area on David Street (site of the current Knights of Columbus Hall, Potter’s Alley and Morton Post Office), and then it moved to its present location on and around the Jefferson School grounds in 1970. The first Festival had eighteen different events, beginning with the Queen selection. Despite four days of rain and not making any money, the Tazewell County News declared this first Festival a “satisfying accomplishment.” The Festival Chairman estimated there were 12,000 people on the grounds during the four days and four nights and more than 7,000 free pumpkin pies were distributed.
The second Festival featured twice as many carnival rides as the first and made a $500 profit. The people of Morton got a “one night” jump on other residents when the carnival opened on Thursday night solely for the benefit of Mortonites. Following the second Festival a 10 person Board of Festival Directors was created. And the Festival has grown since these early days into a four day event, featuring over 30 events and activities and 2,000 volunteers. Throughout the years, the Morton Chamber of Commerce has given more than $600,000 from proceeds of the Pumpkin Festival to local non-profit organizations and in support of community projects.
The Morton community looks forward to welcoming everyone to “Farmin’ Pumpkins” September 13-16, 2023.
Photo References: Morton Pumpkin Festival