Wild About Blueberries

Festivals, Food, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on August 5, 2007
Maine is the top producer of wild blueberries in the United States, harvesting some 74.6 million pounds last year.

The crowd at the Wild Blueberry Festival in Machias, Maine (pop. 2,353), buzzes with anticipation as contestants take their places for the much-heralded blueberry pie-eating contest. Spectators shout out last-minute eating advice as participants steal sideways glances, sizing up the competition. With their hands behind their backs, 10 contestants slowly bend forward, staring at freshly baked blueberry pies. For two minutes, contestants go mouth-first into a pie-eating frenzy that leaves their grinning faces smeared a dark shade of blue.

“It’s our signature event,” says Ron Beckwith, who has organized the contest for the last two years. In fact, the competition has become so popular that Beckwith has employed a lottery drawing to select contestants in four different age groups. “The best part is that there’s no cash prize. Everyone does it for bragging rights,” he says.

The festival, scheduled Aug. 17 to 19, originated in 1975 as a small fund-raiser for the Centre Street Congregational Church. It remains the main fund-raiser for the church, but has evolved and expanded to include other local organizations, such as the local Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to raising money, the festival celebrates the harvest of the region’s most important crop: lowbush wild blueberries. In fact, Maine is the top producer of wild blueberries in the United States, harvesting some 74.6 million pounds last year. As much as 70 percent of those blueberries grow along the rocky coast and rolling hills of Washington County. Since Machias is the county seat, it has become the unofficial Wild Blueberry Capital of the World.

“Not much else will grow here. It’s pretty poor soil,” says Dell Emerson, who managed the University of Maine’s blueberry research facility in nearby Jonesboro (pop. 594) for 25 years. The lowbush blueberries, which stand less than a foot high, thrive in the sandy, high-acid soil found in the area. American Indians picked and sun-dried the berries, and even used them to preserve deer meat.

“Now, because of the festival,” Emerson says, “it seems like the whole country knows about wild blueberries.”

Today, the festival has become a major attraction, boasting cooking contests, historical tours of Machias and more than 200 craft booths. Some 20,000 visitors make their way from every corner of the country, and from as far away as China and Africa, to sample all things blueberry: from blueberry salsa to blueberry vinaigrette to blueberry soap—and, of course, plenty of blueberry pies and muffins.

The town also celebrates its blueberry fame with the Blueberry Musical Comedy. Each festival night, the Congregational Church is transformed into a theater where the talents of Machias residents ranging from ages 3 to 90 are put on display.

“If someone comes to see the musical once, they’re hooked,” says Doug Guy, who created and directed last year’s production.

The musical, which parodies life in Machias, blends Broadway show tunes, gospel and popular songs—with some lyrics rewritten to put the focus on blueberries—loosely tied together by, as Guy describes it “an admittedly thin plot.”

During the day, visitors who are curious about the source of the festival’s tasty namesake can explore area farms. In 2005, blueberry grower Lisa Hanscom began offering tours of her family’s 64-acre blueberry farm in nearby Roque Bluffs (pop. 264). “I wanted people to see how we grow and harvest blueberries,” says Hanscom, whose great-grandfather began harvesting lowbush blueberries in the early 1900s.

Guests can walk through harvested blueberry fields, learn about the traditional tools of the trade and even try to rake some blueberries themselves.

“Hand raking lowbush blueberries is an important tradition in Washington County,” she says. “The harvest is a special time of year.”

And with its mix of delicious blueberry treats and entertaining activities, so is the Wild Blueberry Festival.