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Local

How a bowl of stew put Utica on the map

In 1969, the crowd was ‘underwhelming.’ This year, Burgoo turns 50 and owes a debt of gratitude to a trainload of Chicagoans who popularized the event.

Today, the Burgoo stew gets wolfed down in an hour or less, but 50 years ago, the lone kettle of pioneer stew didn’t attract many takers. A huge crowd is expected this weekend in Utica as the Burgoo Festival marks its 50th anniversary, but those who remember the inaugural event recall sparse attendance and suspicious looks at the stew.
Today, the Burgoo stew gets wolfed down in an hour or less, but 50 years ago, the lone kettle of pioneer stew didn’t attract many takers. A huge crowd is expected this weekend in Utica as the Burgoo Festival marks its 50th anniversary, but those who remember the inaugural event recall sparse attendance and suspicious looks at the stew.

UTICA — It was anything but an overnight success.

A member of the LaSalle County Historical Society had driven three hours to a tiny town west of Springfield and returned with a few cauldrons to whip up some pioneer stew. The society thought it would be fun for people to sample what their ancestors ate while raising funds for the society.

But nobody knew what “burgoo” was in 1969, and the one kettle they cooked wasn’t exactly wolfed down by the crowd, if it can be called so, that descended on Utica for the inaugural Burgoo Festival.

“The first Burgoo Festival was pretty small and pretty underwhelming,” Amanda Carter, events coordinator for the historical society, said. “But they decided to stick with it, and it continued to grow.”

It’s a good thing they stuck it out. This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of what has become the signature event not only for the historical society and Utica but, arguably, for LaSalle County as a whole. More than 350 vendors will be on hand to help the historical society bring in cash to operate its museum and live exhibits.

And in honor of the half centennial, a few new features were added. This year’s festival includes a beer garden featuring “Burgoo Brew,” a beer specially crafted by Tangled Roots.

Live entertainment has been expanded to the front porch of the society’s Heritage Center, and there will be celebrity stirrers working the kettles of the eponymous stew.

Mary Pawlak, a longtime Utica village trustee, said she remembers the inaugural event in 1969 and agreed that attendance was limited. News reports at the time generously listed the crowd at 1,000, and Pawlak recalled that nobody stayed long.

The next few years weren’t much more inspiring. Dolores Passwater, a longtime officer for the LaSalle County Historical Society, remembers one of the early Burgoo Festivals being sparsely attended, with no help at all from Mother Nature.

“There were very few vendors, and it was colder than all get out,” Passwater recalled.

It was a good five years, Pawlak recalled, before the Burgoo Festival attracted any serious attention. The turning point, she said, was when the festival turned 10. That year, a passenger train steamed into Utica and unloaded hundreds of Chicagoans making a day trip specifically for crafts and stew. Burgoo was suddenly on the map, there to stay.

“Now, people come from everywhere,” Pawlak said. “I know of a group from St. Louis who come every year. The Burgoo puts Utica on the map.”

The event has grown in other ways. The Burgoo Festival was Sunday-only until 2013, when the historical society decided a second day was warranted and extended the program to Saturday, attracting an additional 90 vendors.

Around the same time, the historical society launched a marketing campaign aimed at drawing more visitors from Chicago and the Quad Cities. Tax records show that the society, over a three-year span (2012-14), nearly tripled its direct expenses in advertising and other outreach efforts.

It paid off. Burgoo’s gross receipts more than doubled over the same span, and the society enjoyed a record profit in 2015 ($81,481) and a record gross ($124,000) the following year. (Note: Figures from last year’s event are not yet part of the public record.)

Not surprisingly, Utica has fared well along the way. Prior to the marketing boost, Utica averaged more than $15,000 in October retail sales tax receipts; since 2012, that figure has ballooned to nearly $28,000. Burgoo has made October the village’s second-busiest sales month after July, when nearby Starved Rock State Park hauls in the biggest crowds.

“The village is very happy to have it in town for the past 50 years,” Mayor David Stewart said. “It’s going to be a good time for everyone.”

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