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After 35 years of Mushroom Festivals, it’s still all about the morel

By Linda Emley

Like all good Ray Countians, I have been hunting mushrooms all my life. I don’t remember life without the spring ritual of walking the woods while looking for mushrooms. I’m not an expert, but I know to look around many apple plants and dead trees. It has been a few years since we found a big patch of mushrooms, but I’m happy to find enough to have at least one meal of morels. One of my friends in San Francisco asked if they were magic mushrooms. Our morel mushrooms are not psychedelic, but they sure are magical when fried up right.

Mushrooms have been around since the beginning of time. When Buddha died in 543 BC at the age of 80, there were claims made that a bowl of wild mushrooms contributed to his death. Pope Clement VII died in 1534 in Rome after he ate a death cap mushroom. The death cap mushroom can be found in North America, but we know the difference between a mushroom and a toad stool.

One of my favorite mushroom tales is from the good -ol’ days. My mother told me one spring she and her sister Dorothy Beard drove a Jeep mushroom hunting and came back with the whole back full of mushrooms. My dad was working at Wollard’s Garage in Richmond, so they drove in and showed everyone how they had spent the morning. Another favorite story of mine only involves finding one mushroom, but it was sent from heaven. My grandmother Schooler was in her 80s and was no longer able to walk the ditches on her farm. We always shared our mushrooms with her, but it is the thrill of the hunt that makes them taste so good. She and I went for a walk around her yard because she said she might find one in her fence row. I went with her but did not expect to see a miracle like the one I saw when she found a single mushroom in the corner of her yard. You would have thought she had found the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Since Richmond’s Mushroom Festival is next week, I thought I would share a little modern history about how it all started. There is another town that claims to be the mushroom capital of the world, but there are several reasons why we win the title. The people of Kenneth Square, Pa. are having their 29th annual Mushroom festival in September. They are having a carnival, a parade and a 5k run just like we do. However, we have been celebrating five years longer than they have. We have morels mushrooms, they only have portabella mushrooms. Are portabella really mushrooms? They sure look like toad stools to me.

Yes, mushrooms are found all over the world, but I am 100 percent sure Richmond is the Mushroom capital of the World because our city council says we are. On April 16, 1980, the Richmond City Council met at 7:30 p.m. and voted for the following resolution. “Mr. Howard Hill, publisher of the Daily News, Jack Pointer and another from the Chamber of Commerce appeared before the Richmond City Council and requested a passage of a resolution to make Richmond the Mushroom Capital of the World. Councilman Swafford moved that Resolution No. 228-(80) be approved. Councilman Proffitt seconded the motion. Ayes: Swafford, Proffitt, Cooper, Jorgensen, Austin, Wolfe, Thomas, Hardison. Nays: none. Motion Carried. Our mayor was C.B. Thompson Jr.; city attorney was Roger Driskell; chief of police was John Moore; Sam Freel was the city clerk; and Richmond City Council included: Ed Lee Swafford, James Hardison, Larry Proffitt, Carol Thomas, Ed Wolfe, James Austin, John Jorgensen and Byron Cooper.”

Richmond businesses jumped at the opportunity to make hay with the town’s new designation. The Richmond News promoted Mushroom Mania Days, May 1-3, 1980, where “bargains were popping out all over.” Twenty participating businesses, including Ben Franklin, Duval’s and Rader’s clothing stores, Bob’s (MacDonald) United Super and First National Bank, posted “magnificent morels” on their store windows signifying their participation with discounts on retail items. The mania morphed into a full-blown festival the following year.

The first Mushroom festival was held on the 7th, 8th and 9th of May in 1981 and it was called Mushroom Mania. Bob McDonald was chairman of Mushroom Mania, Inc. Dean Snow was chairman of the flea market and food booths for Mushroom Mania. Twenty-seven vendors were stationed on the west and north sides of the square. We had a beer garden, a carnival, a beard contest, a mushroom contest, a parade and a mushroom cooking contest.

We even made it to the TV news. Richmond’s hometown celebrity Valissa Smith was in town with St. Joseph’s Channel 2 News crew, and videotaped many of the events. It aired as a segment called “Friends and Neighbors.”

Another one of Richmond’s celebrities, 61 Country DJ Phil Young was the judge for the best beard contest. We had lawnmower races, bingo, a car show and mechanical bull rides. And who could forget the tours of Richmond that were offered from 1 to 5 p.m.?

The 35th Annual Mushroom Festival will begin Thursday, April 30 and run to Saturday, May 2. The event, recognized as one of Missouri’s best festivals in Rural Missouri Magazine, touts more than 145 craft and food booths; a carnival, kiddie tractor pull sponsored by Ag-Power; 5k/2k run/walk; talent shows; Christian music concert Thursday evening; a grand parade featuring around 20 area World War II veterans as grand marshals, the Marching Cobras and participants from Kansas City’s Renaissance Festival, along with live musical performances. A special addition to the event this year will be an interactive robot that will walk the festival from 1 to 5 p.m., Saturday May 2.  It will walk, talk and interact with visitors.

We are having our annual Tennis Ball Drop where participants can win $500.  All of the proceeds from this sale will help fund the American Celebration held July.  You can purchase a ticket for $5 from any of the Mushroom Festival committee members or at our booth right in front of the chamber office during the Mushroom Festival. New this year is a business-window decorating contest as well as the Ray County’s Favorite Pet Contest.  But for the purist, it’s all about the morel. The Largest Morel Contest, sponsored by The Richmond News, draws hundreds of onlookers. Fresh morels will be available for purchase raw and cooked.

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