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What do you think the village of Morton, Illinois, might be famous for?
Yes, this town of some 16,000 residents, a bedroom community of Peoria, was ranked one of the “10 best towns for families” in 2013 by Family Circle magazine.
And yes, it gained some infamy that same year when one of its neighborhoods blocked a Habitat for Humanity home from being built for a hearing-disabled veteran because they didn’t think the vinyl-sided home would fit into their brick-house community (after donations poured in as a result of the story, a brick house was built in its stead).
Is Morton, Illinois, the home of Morton Salt?
Morton University? No, those are both natives of Chicago, about 150 miles to the northeast.
Think fall … think round … think orange!
Morton is known as the Pumpkin Capital of the World.
Not only are several thousand acres around Morton growing pumpkins, but the Libby pumpkin cannery calls Morton home, canning up to 85 percent of the canned pumpkin in the U.S. So much pumpkin that the cannery runs day and night for about 13 weeks each year leading up to Thanksgiving. About 200 local farmers grow millions of pumpkins … not the kind you’d especially use for carving, but Dickinsons—tan-colored, oblong, thin-skinned pumpkins known for their rich flavor.
And each September at the beginning of pumpkin-harvest season, Morton holds their annual Pumpkin Festival, a 4-day event that attracts 100,000 visitors to the tiny town for events like Pumpkin Bingo, a pumpkin-decorating contest, a parade with over 100 entries where participants and spectators alike are encouraged to wear orange, and as many pumpkin-laden treats that residents can dream up … and visitors can eat up. And, of course, a pumpkin-pie eating contest!
Next year, try growing flavorful Dickinson pumpkins (can you believe it’s an heirloom variety?) for your own pies—find heirloom seeds at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Today, let’s armchair travel to what just might be the wildest frontier town on the planet. But if you think we’re traveling to the Wild, Wild West, you might be surprised to learn we’re traveling eastward … to the Eastern Cape province of South Africa!
If, like me, you hadn’t heard of the Eastern Cape, it sits on the southeastern coast of South Africa, and is the birthplace of Nelson Mandela and many other prominent South African politicians. And its crowning jewel is an eccentric little frontier town called Bathurst.
Bathurst was settled in 1820 by lower-class British settlers looking to escape poverty in England, and sent to the area to act as a buffer between the Cape Colony and the African Xhosa people. One of those first settlers, Thomas Hartley, built a forge and became the town blacksmith. In 1832, he built an inn and pub next to his house. After his death, the pub became known as The Widow Hartley’s Inn. Later, it was renamed the Pig and Whistle, and it’s now one of the many National Monuments in Bathurst and the oldest continuously licensed pub in the country. A sign on the front door says, “Bathurst is a drinking village with a farming problem.”
Travelers also come for the art the town is famous for. Known as a community of artists and musicians, you’ll find eccentric shops and galleries, yard art like a vintage toilet sporting a pair of black stilettos, and an African thatched hut called the Dancing Donkey that sports African arts and crafts as well as natural organic products. Many of the original settler houses and other buildings in town have been preserved, giving the feel of an English village of the early 19th Century.
On down the road, you’ll find the kitschy Bathurst Agricultural Museum, where you can see an ostrich incubator, ox wagon, old farming equipment, and even a steam engine.
But the kitschy-est venue in town may be the world’s largest pineapple! The three-story-tall fiberglass pineapple (the main agricultural crop of the region) houses a pineapple museum and is surrounded by pineapple fields. While there, you can take a tractor tour of the farm and taste the local pineapples.
In the village, you’ll also find the 1832 Wesleyan Church and the oldest (1834) unaltered Anglican church in South Africa, St John’s, as well as the Bathurst Nursery and Tea Garden. On a nearby hill sits The Toposcope monument, built in 1859 with rocks from the original dwellings, marking the hilltop survey point for the early settlers with a vast view of the surrounding countryside.
Just a short drive away, you’ll find the Waters Meeting Nature Reserve, offering hiking and canoeing, and the beautiful Sunshine Coast, with its variety of swimming and surfing beaches.
To celebrate the season of harvest, let’s get away to the magnificent moorlands of the Scottish Hebrides …
where the bracken is turning bronze
and ripe, red rowan berries decorate the hedgerows.
It’s nearly time to collect the crops!
Once ashore, we’ll take a turn back in time to the harvests of old …
Nineteenth century Scottish folklorist Alexander Carmichael painted a vivid picture of the traditional Hebridean harvest ceremony, which commenced yearly on Michaelmas, the feast of Saint Michael, on September 29:
“The day the people began to reap the corn was a day of commotion and ceremonial in the townland. The whole family repaired to the field dressed in their best attire to hail the God of the harvest. Laying his bonnet on the ground, the father of the family took up his sickle, and facing the sun, he cut a handful of corn. Putting the handful of corn three times sunwise round his head, the man raised the Iolach Buana, the reaping salutation. The whole family took up the strain and praised the God of the harvest, who gave them corn and bread, food and flocks, wool and clothing, health and strength, and peace and plenty.”
I can just imagine being a part of that celebratory scene, gussied up in linen and lace, and working well into the night by the light of a harvest moon …
A farmgirl fantasy!
The “gleaning” at the end of the corn harvest, depicted in the painting above, was as much cause for celebration as the first cutting, and it had its own special ritual. When all the fields were harvested, a young woman would cut the last sheaf, which was considered the last refuge for the harvest spirit. The sheaf was then braided and shaped into a Corn Maiden (also called a Kirn Baby or Corn Dolly). The doll would grace the table at the harvest feast, where she was toasted merrily, and would then be hung with honor in a farmhouse kitchen or local church.
One of the special culinary centerpieces of this feast was struan bread, or Michael’s Bannock, made by combining all types of grain from the farm with butter, eggs, and sheep’s milk. The loaf was marked with a cross and baked on a stone over a fire of oak, rowan, and bramble wood. You can recreate traditional Scottish struan using the lovely recipe at LeeandJay.wordpress.com.
With our bellies full of bannock, we could settle here a while, don’t you think? Autumn is, after all, “a good time for staying.” Linger a bit upon this 11th century poem written by an unknown Celtic author, and you’ll see what I mean …
A good season for staying is autumn;
there is work then for everyone before the very short days.
Dappled fawns from among the hinds, the red clumps of the bracken shelter them;
stags run from the knolls at the belling of the deer-herd.
Sweet acorns in the wide woods, corn-stalks around cornfields over the expanse of brown earth.
There are thorn-bushes and prickly brambles by the midst of the ruined court;
the hard ground is covered with heavy fruit.
Hazel-nuts of good crop fall from the huge old trees on dykes.
Ah, well, the time has come—I must get back out outside, amongst my own fair fields. I’d love to hear how the harvest is coming along in your neck of the woods. Any thoughts of a hosting a harvest celebration?