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St. Joe, Ind. Relishes Pickle Festival

Lisa Ryan, WBOI
High school student Keely Reed drew this picture for the What-a-Pickle category of the art show.

There are many food festivals in the United States, but not very many are solely dedicated to pickles. There’s only one pickle festival in Indiana, and it takes place forty minutes north of Fort Wayne in St. Joe.

In this week’s NorthEATS Indiana, WBOI’s Lisa Ryan reports on the history of the brine-filled festival and the cucumber-based activities you can find there.

The tour of Sechler’s pickle factory starts outside, where customers can smell the vinegar in the air.

Credit Lisa Ryan, WBOI News
Customers look at the variety of pickles offered by Sechler's.

When the company started in 1921, there were cucumber fields surrounding the original building where Ralph and Anna Sechler started their pickle business.

Jerry Vinson used to work in the cucumber fields. He started working at Sechler’s in the 1950s when he was 13 years old.

“It was hard work, but we made a little bit of money. There was nothing else to do,” Vinson said. “There was no video games back then, no TVs. So you just worked. When you were a kid, you just worked.”

Credit Lisa Ryan, WBOI News
A machine used to sort cucumbers by size sits unused now that cucumbers are no longer grown on the property.

Today, no kids work in the fields. There aren’t any cucumber fields to work in at all. The Sechlers sold most of their land, says Vinson, and the factory is no longer managed by the family.

However, Vinson, who runs the Pickle Festival each year, says Sechler’s continues to be an important part of the town.

“When people talk about St. Joe, well that’s where Sechler’s Pickles are,” he said.

Which is why each year, people gather in St. Joe to celebrate pickles. There’s a wide variety of pickle-themed activities and food, including fried pickles and pickle-flavored ice cream. Vinson says the ice cream, which is made from sweet Sechler’s pickles, is not his favorite, but it’s a popular treat.

“I’m not crazy about it, but everyone has to try it,” he said.

Credit Lisa Ryan, WBOI News
A pickle shows pictures from a past festival.

There’s a pickle derby, where people put wheels on cucumbers and race them. People also dress up pickles as people, and their artistic food is judged in a competition.

Vinson says popular decorating ideas are presidents and first ladies, and he doesn’t doubt someone will use the presidential election as creative fodder for decorating their pickle person.

They have a small art show, some of which is pickle themed, and a new activity this year will be pickleball, a game that does not involve any vegetables.

The event is 20 years old, and it started out as a Fourth of July festival. Vinson says shifting the festival’s focus to a celebration of pickles has helped differentiate St. Joe from surrounding towns. It also brings in tourists to St. Joe, which has a population of less than 500 people.

Credit Lisa Ryan, WBOI News

“We had people from 2 or 3 foreign countries and probably 10 different states last year come to the festival. It’s like a family reunion, a lot of people come that went to school here years ago when we had a high school here, and the high school hasn’t been here since 1963, but still a lot of people come back and they have a mini class reunion,” Vinson said.

He’s not sure how many people attend the festival because they don’t charge admission. But he’s heard estimates as high as 10,000.

“Where they got the estimate, I have no idea,” he said. “But Patty, the girl that works with us, said some woman called her, told her the same thing, so it’s out there somewhere that 10,000 people come here.”

"You wouldn't want to miss the pickle fest."

Kathy Brown leads a tour through the Sechler’s factory.

She never used to go to the festival, until she started working at Sechler’s. Now, she loves it.

“I have to have my pickle ice cream, and my fried pickles, you wouldn’t want to miss the pickle fest,” Brown said.

Vinson says soon, he won’t run the festival.

“I’ll be 75 years old,” he said. “Time to move on.”

But he says he’ll come back each year to celebrate.

Just come out for a good time. We’re not big time, state fair, we’re just a little county festival that has a lot of things for kids and almost everything is free,” he said.

Since almost everything is free, the festival is definitely not a moneymaking operation. Vinson says each year, they just hope to break even, and they rely primarily on donations.

The only thing that isn’t free is the food… including the pickle ice cream.

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