Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#92, June 20, 2000


by Marylaine Block

I'm inclined to think there is no town in America so small and abandoned by God that it doesn't have at least one thing to take pride in and provide an excuse to throw itself a party every year.

Many towns honor a native son or daughter who is at least semi-renowned. Northfield, Minnesota celebrates Jesse James Days, Henderson, Kentucky sponsors the annual W.C. Handy Blues and Barbecue Festival, and my own town, Davenport, Iowa, puts on a Bix Fest every year, three days and nights of Dixieland jazz in honor of our own Bix Beiderbecke. In Missouri, Tom Sawyer Days honors an imaginary native son with a frog jumping competition, mud volleyball, and the National Fence Painting Contest.

Towns that lack local celebrities can always celebrate some local product instead. In Oklahoma, at the yearly Watonga Cheese Festival, you can eat cheese fudge and run the Rat Race. At the Luling Watermelon Thump in Texas, you can enjoy watermelon eating and seed-spitting contests. The Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival honors two sources of pride at once; visitors can join in the shrimp cook-off and eat fried alligator and other local delicacies. Collinsville, Illinois, home of the World's Largest Catsup Bottle, has a bash every year honoring the bottle's birthday. And at the annual Purple Hull Pea Festival in Emerson, Arkansas, you can join in the World Championship Rotary Tiller Race, the purple hull pea shelling contest or the pea-stomping street dance.

There are too many Pioneer Days and Cowboy Days events to count, and many other celebrations of our history -- Covered Bridge Festivals, Sodbuster Days, Old Miners Days. Riverside, Iowa honors a history that hasn't actually happened yet; declaring itself the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk, it sponsors Trekkie festivals.

There are also celebrations of more modern ways of life, such as the Roadkill Cookoff in Marlinton, West Virginia, the U.S. Lawnmower Racing Championships in Lisle, Illinois, and Route 66 Celebration Days in Amarillo. In Iowa, the largest truck stop in the nation hosts the annual Walcott Truckers Jamboree, featuring the Trucker Olympics, musical hay bales, and the famous water balloon toss.

Sometimes towns just use whatever they have available to make up an event. St. Petersburg Beach, Florida, having a lot of sand available, created the annual Dolphins to Dinosaurs Sand Castle Competition. Sheboygan, Wisconsin, having both river and lake at hand, stages a Cardboard Boat Regatta, where awards are handed out not only for the most beautiful boat, but for the most spectacular sinking (the Titanic award). Roslyn, Washington sponsors the Manly Man Festival, which includes a Spam Cook-off, a Tool Belt Contest, a Flexing Contest, and a Cowpie Toss.

Towns whose climate does not entice tourists can turn even THAT into an excuse for a party. Oatman, Arizona sponsors an annual Sidewalk Egg Frying Contest, where, in addition to the main event, you can see old west gunfights, and wild burros roaming the streets. Towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin hold snow and ice festivals, featuring snowman building, ice sculpture contests and snowball fights. Hey, like the song says, sometimes "You gotta fight for your right to party."

Thousands of towns celebrate their ethnic heritage -- the Basque Festival in Idaho, the Portuguese Spring Festival in Massachusetts, Polish Festival Days in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and Juneteenth celebrations all over the country. Many towns have Highland Games, featuring medieval sports, bagpipes, and Scotch Ale Brewing Championships (enough ale presumably makes it possible to choke down the authentic Scottish haggis).

Such festivals are possible because in America, despite our occasional ugly bursts of anti-immigrant fervor, hundreds of ethnic groups live peaceably side by side, not only tolerating each other but enjoying our differences. We eat each other's food, listen to each other's music, marry each other. I suspect ethnic minorities in many countries wouldn't dare to attract attention with celebrations like these.

Our excuses for celebrating, and the odd ways we do it, are as varied as America itself. If you've ignored local festivities like the Mud Bug Madness Festival (Louisiana) or the National Skillet Throw (Iowa), you've missed out on America at its grandest and silliest. Maybe you should do something about that.

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