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Festivals Give Small-Town America An Excuse For Fun

July 3, 1989

Undated (AP) _ Folks who can cluck like a chicken, America wants you. Men with spindly legs, you’re in demand, too. Ditto people with crayfish that can scoot like Secretariat.

No, such talents don’t mean a future of Broadway lights, but small town America has learned how to make fun from the oddest festivals. And there’s always time for a contest or exhibit at these Woodstocks of weirdness.

Consider the Chicken Show this weekend at Wayne, Neb.

Organizers say they expect 5,000 to show up for the National Cluck-Off, a parade with the theme of ″Science Fiction Chicken″ - Frank-Hen-Stein is expected - and a Beautiful Beak Contest.

″When the chicken was mentioned, everyone started laughing and we haven’t stopped since,″ said Gail Korn, one of the show’s organizers.

Toadfish are honored with a zany festival at Sausalito, Calif., even though their droning mating calls drive houseboat-dwellers nuts.

Crayfish also have their festivals. Organizers in Isleton, Calif., where a crustacean race tops the schedule, call them crawdads. In Shreveport-Bos sier City, La., they’re mudbugs.

There are sweet corn fests, where folks chomp away on steaming ears by the ton, and at least one horseradish fest, where aficionados enjoy their favorite delicacy in smaller bites. Also celebrated are prunes, possums, sauerkraut, spinach, raisins, and an legendary alligator named Two-Toed Tom - which fell in love with a sawmill whistle at Esto, Fla.

Some themes are played with a nudge and a wink - the Heeney, Colo., Tick Festival, pays ironic tribute to a disease-spreading critter. Some do double duty - Key West, Fla.’s Hemingway Days combines seminars and an Ernest lookalike contest.

Dana Pomerenke, chairman of the Great Texas Mosquito Festival in Clute, Texas, gives a theme explanation that is typical of the tongue-in-cheek festival faction.

″Someone said, ’We’ve got a lot of mosquitoes around here, so let’s capitalize on it and do something crazy like start a mosquito festival,‴ said Pomerenke. The late-July event will include a mosquito legs look-alike contest and a Ms. Quito beauty contest.

Deceased stars and fictional icons of popular culture - James Dean, Star Trek - are popular, particularly if the dear departed happens to have been born in a small town. The typical metropolis has given birth to too many stars to single out just one, but Metropolis, Ill., adopted Superman, and holds a fest in honor of the Man of Steel every year.

It doesn’t even matter if the stars didn’t set foot in their hometown after making it, or even, as in the case of Judy Garland and Grand Rapids, Minn., if they are said to have lived out their lives being glad they left.

Any town that bills itself as the Something-or-other Capital of the World is a festival candidate, of course.

The Brick Capital of the World, Malvern, Ark., has a brick-throwing contest at its fest, while at the Cereal Capital of the World, Battle Creek, Mich., they unfurl yards of checkered tablecloths and feed breakfast to thousands.

In Heeney, Colo., population 45, the ″first annual tick festival″ eight years ago was just a picnic to celebrate one woman’s recovery from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, an illness borne by ticks. This year, up to 3,000 people showed up June 10 to take in the parade, the crowning of the Tick King and Tick Queen and other events.

″It sounds like a weird idea for a festival, but it gives us something to do,″ said D.J. Parlin, a 1989 Tick Queen nominee. ″It’s always Heeney’s biggest event of the year, and it’s real popular with visitors.″

Given the agricultural roots of so many of the fests, it’s no surprise that cow-chip throwing is a festival staple. It’s permissible to put a plastic bag or glove over your hand before you pick one up.

″Some people throw overhand and some throw them like a Frisbee,″ said Sandy Franky of Chatham, Ill., where the Sweet Corn Festival next month will feature a chip throw. ″Everyone has their own style.″

But not all festivals are just fun, fun, fun.

The last weekend in June, Comfrey, Minn., held its annual Hospital Days festival and fund-raiser for its eight-bed hospital, said to be the smallest in Minnesota. They took in $11,000 before expenses this year from burger sales and a dunk tank where you could douse the mayor, local schoolteachers or ″people who wanted to cool off,″ said hospital administrator John Holmes.

″This is very, very, very dear money to us,″ he said. ″We use it to pay bills. It is very much needed.″

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