Written by: Michael Raab | Photos provided by: North Carolina Blueberry Festival Association
Pleasant, bucolic Burgaw is the county seat of Pender County and for 364 days a year the population hovers around 4,000. For one day, however, Burgaw will increase in population by an additional 40,000 as the 14th Annual North Carolina Blueberry Festival comes to paint the town blue. This giant, ever-increasing celebration, founded in 2004, wraps itself around the lawn of Burgaw’s historic Courthouse Square in a giant sprawl of all things blueberry. Be it, cakes, pies, muffins, jellies or jams, the list goes on and on. For this one day a year, here in Burgaw, if it ain’t blue, it just won’t do.
The concept of the Blueberry Festival came about in 2003. According to festival Coordinator/ Director Olivia Dawson, “When the agriculture department, some town officials and volunteers came together to discuss it, they chose Burgaw for its location.” Dawson explained that Burgaw seemed to be the right choice for the festival, which is centered around the Courthouse Square, is the county seat and was established by its citizens, and town officials. The blueberry boom in Pender, however, goes back almost a century ago to a man named Harold Graham Huntington.
Huntington was a graduate of Dartmouth College and enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War I. After the war, he and a friend from New Jersey, Louis Doremus, bought a farm in Florida raising lettuce and celery. The market bottomed out, but he later met Elizabeth White, who was looking for new varieties of blueberries. He also came into contact with Dr. Fred Coville of the U.S.Department of Agriculture. Huntington began producing blueberry crops that he sold through the Tru Blu Association.
A breakthrough occurred when Huntington developed a method of mass rooting cuttings. He and his father, Frederick Wolcott Huntington, began cruising the east coast in their Dodge Touring car looking for suitable property to grow their blueberries. They learned that wild blueberries grew abundantly in this area, and in 1927 they bought 1640 acres from Will Corbett. That’s when things began taking off. At the peak of his New Jersey and North Carolina production, he hired more than 1,000 pickers and several dozen packers and field workers.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s, the crops were decimated by canker, a virus-producing disease. Huntington worked with North Carolina State University to produce disease-resistant blueberries, the Wolcott and Murphy varieties. “Wolcott” was named after Harold’s father, and the “Murphy” for a local blueberry farmer. These varieties, as well as others, saved blueberry farming in North Carolina.
The festival’s mission, according to Dawson, “continues to celebrate the historic, economic and cultural significance of blueberries grown in the southeast region of our state.” Scholarships and other activities continue as priorities of the festival. “Again, as in previous years, $20,000 in scholarships will be made available to deserving students residing in the blueberry producing counties of Bladen, Duplin, New Hanover, Pender and Sampson,” adds Dawson.
The North Carolina Blueberry Festival continues to be a great celebration that does good things. This is exactly what Harold Graham Huntington would have wanted.
Burgaw’s Blueberry Festival is Friday, June 16th – Saturday, June 17th
Enjoy food, fun, festivities, and blueberries!
Check out ncblueberryfestival.com for a complete schedule of activities.