BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
WEST POINT – Sitting in the middle of about 16 tons of corn on a warm, sunny evening Jerry Wiggenjost is taken back to his childhood.
He remembers his father, Burt and his father’s friend Lonnie Frietag, who used to run an implement store in West Point back in the 50s.
He said the two were instrumental in getting the town’s Sweet Corn Festival up and running.
On Wednesday, the festival kicked off with the annual ‘Shuckfest’ behind Merschman Seeds just southeast of the town square.
“They got the farmers who would donate about 50 bushels of sweet corn and we would shuck that up on the corner of the square by the bowling alley,” Wiggenjost recalled as he pulled the light green sinewy husks from the ears and snapped off the heavy end.
He then dropped the corn into a milk crate nestled between him and his wife Barb on a bench, the whole process taking about 30 seconds before he snatched up another ear and kept talking.
“They had the locker there and had a big pot where they would boil hides after butchering animals and they would fill it with water. They’d use that to boil the corn,” he said.
Wiggenjost and his wife live in Liberty, Kansas, just north of Kansas City, and drove back to join the masses who make annual trek to the Merschman shipping dock lot where a semi-load of corn was dumped east to west in a pile about two feet deep and about 100 yards long.
Part of the tradition of the self-dubbed “Shuckfest” is plenty of water to stay hydrated and ice cold beer. Pitchers are set up on the benches as milk crates are filled with the shucked corn. ATVs staffed with volunteers come around and swap out the crates filled with corn, for empty ones and then take the crates across the street to another warehouse where they are submerged in an ice bath by youth volunteers.
After the bath, the crates are then stacked in the warehouse where they await huge thresher-run boilers on the northeast corner of the city park where corn is served all day throughout the festival.
The corn is donated from Merschman Seeds and Lee County Bank donates burgers, hot dogs, chips, water, the beer and just about the entire staff to help feed the mothers of all shuckers.
Men, women and children from all over north Lee County, and in some cases from outside the state, make the trip back to start the 67th Annual 4-day Sweet Corn Festival. Some just for the corn, some for the festival, and some just for the camaraderie of friends of years gone by.
“People come. If they move away they will come back with their kids and grandkids just to be a part of this,” Wiggenjost said.
“We know people that used to be our neighbors when we lived here in town, who live in Arizona and came back with their kids and grandkids. There are people from New York here.”
Wiggenjost said West Point claims its Sweet Corn festival is the biggest in the world. He said no one’s gonna contest it. He said he was on the cooking committee on Sunday nights when his dad was in charge of the BBQ chicken on Friday through Sunday.
He said his memories are of the whole town getting involved with men cooking and women serving and kids helping shuck. He said it’s something you really don’t see on this level anywhere else.
“If they grow up in the city, they don’t know a damn thing about sweet corn or shuckin’ it,” he said. “Look at that little girl over there. She’s barely old enough to walk and here she is.”
The corn arrived at about 3:45 p.m. with people showing up at around 4. The start time for shucking was listed at 5 p.m. but about 100 people were already digging into the pile of ears to get the party started.
Most of the veteran shuckers said it would take about about three hours to shuck the whole dump, which amounts to about 175 lbs of corn per minute.
“When it’s done they bring in tractor and they just scoop up all the leaves and clean it all up in no time at all. It’s all very slick,” Wiggenjost said.
The festival starts with the carnival rides at 5 p.m. Thursday and of course all the sweet corn you can eat.
A full list of events appears on page 10 of Thursday morning’s Pen City Current E-Edition.