Blueberry Festival: Big Fun, Small Town

The 55th Blueberry Festival coming up Sept. 2-6, in Marshall County, Ind., isn’t your typical small-town festival.

“This is Indiana’s largest five-day festival and was named a Top 100 Event in North America by the American Bus Association three different years,” says Karen Oneal, festival coordinator.

And no wonder. The event packs every festive activity you can think of into the extended Labor Day weekend and draws some 400,000 visitors to Plymouth, Ind., a community of 12,000 people. Plymouth is about 80 minutes from Fort Wayne and 2 hours from Chicago and Indianapolis.

“It started in 1967 as a community picnic in the park,” says Oneal. “There was a desire to provide no- or low-cost entertainment to families and to help non-profits earn money. It was locals-only, at first – farmers brought their fruits and vegetables to sell. Over time, it evolved.”

And how.

Today’s Blueberry Festival boasts more than 400 craft vendors from across the U.S. and 100-plus food vendors; three entertainment stages; a bustling commercial tent where 130 businesses promote their goods and services; a huge parade with floats and bands; one of the largest fireworks displays in the Midwest; numerous sports tournaments, from arm wrestling to pickleball; a fun run, bicycle cruise and lake swim; carnival rides and games; pony rides; laser tag; a scholarship pageant; historical Americana and demonstrations; a tractor pull, auto show and horse show; a hot air balloon launch and glow; and, of course, lots of treats made with blueberries, from blueberry ice cream and cheesecake to pies and donuts.

“People stand in line for hours to get those blueberry donuts,” says Oneal.
About 110 non-profit groups work at the festival, which was cancelled last year due to COVID-19.

“For many, this is their only source of income, so they’re really looking forward to making up for lost income this year and I think we’ll have a huge turn-out,” says Oneal.

One of three entertainment stages is dedicated to gospel music; the others host country, rhythm & blues and rock music groups.

Among 2021 headliners on the Gospel Stage will be the Ball Brothers, four young men from Georgia who offer a message-driven mix of tunes in four-part harmony. Other Christian performers will include Jacob’s Well, the Blackwood Quartet, Dark Ridge Ramblers, Dave and Daphne, Jim Worthing, Quentin Flagg, Spoken 4 and The Rescue Band.

Oneal has been involved with the Blueberry Festival for 27 years, starting as a float judge and information booth worker. She later served many years on the 15-member Blueberry Festival Board and was named coordinator in 2020, the only paid position.

“Board members work full-time jobs but put in a ton of hours to work on the festival all year long,” Oneal explains. “There are so many moving parts, and each member coordinates a major aspect like the carnival rides, the food etc. We’ve been doing it a lot of years now and have a good system in place. It takes 100 volunteers to make the festival a success.”

After every festival, board members meet to review what improvements can be made the following year. In 2008, for example, the Marshall County Blueberry Festival began a recycling effort that has since diverted more than 69 tons of recyclables from local landfills.

Oneal, who grew up a few miles north of Plymouth in Lakeville, Ind., has fond childhood memories of attending the Blueberry Festival. She knows firsthand how important it is to generations of residents in Marshall County and beyond.

“People look forward to it all year long. And for volunteers, it’s a time of meeting people, learning how teamwork pays off, working hard but also having a lot of fun,” she says. “It’s also very important to our county economically. Visitors book motel and campground reservations, buy gas and visit local restaurants and shops here because of this festival.”

The event is the sole means of financial support for many non-profits. For example, festival parking is coordinated by local service clubs, which use trams to transport visitors from the Plymouth High School parking lot to the festival grounds at Centennial Park. Profits from parking fees are divided among the school, service clubs and the Festival fund.

While most things will remain consistent, there are a few new aspects to this year’s festival.

“The auto show has expanded to include more types of cars and we’ve added pickleball to the sports tournament lineup,” says Oneal. “And every year we find new shows to interest children. This year we’ve booked ‘The Wheels of Agriculture’ game show for kids.”

Festival hours are Thursday, Sept. 2 from 5-9 p.m.; Friday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Monday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The fireworks show is Sunday night at dusk – set up chairs or spread blankets in the fields east of the carnival at Centennial Park. The Blueberry Festival Parade steps off at 9:30 Monday morning.

Find a full schedule of events, entertainment and carnival ticket prices, plus registration for tournaments, at ❚