What started in the 1960s as a simple fireman’s dance to raise funds for the fire department has blossomed into a 2 1/2-day festival with statewide draw. It includes a fireworks display, a princess pageant, children’s entertainment, softball, volleyball and horseshoe tournaments, merchandise and craft vendors, bingo, a tractor pull, a clogger performance, a parade, an auction and raffle just to name a few.
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The much-anticipated softball tournament is far from your average local folks swinging bats, although Cornfest features that as well. The tournament, which starts on Saturday and runs into Sunday, attracts teams from as far as Chicago, Milwaukee and even Rhinelander. The schedule can accommodate up to 32 teams, but tournament organizer Greg Nichols said that lately he has lost a few teams to the World Tournament that takes place in Florida around this time every year.
“The last couple of years we’ve been averaging about 24 because of the world tournament, so we’re always trying to get that back up to 32,” Nichols said. “But this is an opportunity to watch some really great softball. Some of the guys that come down have played minor league ball at one point in time, so we’ve got some really good players coming out.”
Just as it’s an opportunity to watch some top-shelf softball, it’s also a chance to test your skills. The tournament is open to any team with a minimum of five players. There is a $160 entry fee, but cash prizes (based on the number of teams) are awarded for the top placing teams. The game is double-elimination men’s slow-pitch softball.
Registration is still open if you, your co-workers, friends or family want to try your luck.
“The window for registration will be open until this weekend,” Nichols said. “All I really need for registration is the fee, the team name and the coach’s name. I can take the team roster the day of.”
Pulling for fun
Another traditional Cornfest event is the tractor pull that will take place at noon Sept. 6. And Matt Shinkus, who helps prep the grounds for the pull, is already at work.
“The main thing is leveling the ground,” Shinkus said. “The lanes are 30 feet wide, 300 feet long, and the ground can’t have any stones on the surface. First I till the ground up and then I roll it, then we wet it and roll it again till we get it nice and firm,” he said. “There are a lot of potential safety issues, but that’s why we bring in a professional group like Tri-County Pullers.”
Cornfest contracts with Tri-County Pullers to put on and host its tractor pull every year, but it wasn’t always that way. Years ago, when the idea first cropped up to have a tractor pull, Shinkus said it was a bit more informal.
“They started the pulling at Cornfest about 35 years ago,” Shinkus said. “We started our own barn tractor pulls where anyone could bring their own tractor that they just used for work. It was a lot of fun, but it was a bit dangerous, so because of the liability and things like that, it made more sense to bring in a sanctioned club.”
The organization not only offers increased safety, but is able to show off machinery that not just anyone keeps in their barn.
“They run about five classes and it takes several hours,” Shinkus said. “Some of these folks have $30,000 to $40,000 in these pullers and these modified tractors. ... (T)hey put on one heck of a show.”
Shinkus and his son, Brian, still make it down to the track on their tractors on Saturday, though. Instead of pulling, they are on leveling duty to help keep the track clear.
“I grade the track between pulls, so I’m there all day doing that,” he said. “I run the grader and my son, who’s on the fire department, runs the roller to level it out after each pull.”
Volunteers make it happen
The events at Cornfest offer a host of fun activities to engage in, but like most festivals, it’s really defined by the people. Both the people who run Cornfest and those who attend it really are the lifeblood of the gathering. While it has a knack for calling home the sons and daughters of Darien, for those who never left, it is an important tradition they have been perpetuating for a lifetime.
“Well my dad, Don Haman, was one of the originators of the festival. He was the fire chief back in the day,” Karen Haman said. “He worked for the fire department of Darien for 50 years. One day at one of the meetings he volunteered me to run the Cornfest parade. I was in my early 20s and I didn’t know anything about running a parade. But I just did it. That’s how I got into it, and that was 30 years ago.”
Shinkus has been donating his time to the festival for the better part of 40 years, saying that he started volunteering shortly after returning home from the service. Nichols, who’d been helping with planning the softball tournament for several years, had the responsibility for the event drop in his lap as well.
“I was working with a group on it and someone dropped it last minute about 10 years ago so they asked me to come in and help out and I’ve been running it ever since,” Nichols said.
In addition to the many volunteers who help, much of the funding for Cornfest comes from community donations as well. In essence, Cornfest is a festival paid for and run by the community, for the community in order to help support the community.
“For a small town it’s pretty amazing how much we are able to pull off every year just by working together,” Haman said. “It’s also pretty amazing that we’ve been able to keep (it) alive for this many years. It’s a Darien mainstay.
“The coming together of the community is my favorite part, just pulling together and supporting one another. The profits go to the fire department, the Darien community club, local youth sports organizations and the Darien Legion. The Darien Cornfest Committee keeps some as well to do renovations and put some back into the community.”