First flowering of Pekin’s Marigold Festival

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The 44th Annual Pekin Marigold Festival, scheduled to run from Thursday, Sept. 8, through Sunday, Sept. 11, is less than two weeks away. However, since this weekend in fact falls within the anniversary of the very first Marigold Festival, which ran for 10 days from Aug. 24 to Sept. 2, 1973, now is an ideal time to refresh our memories of the festival’s first flowering.

After almost a year in which the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce worked hard to fertilize and cultivate the ground for the first Marigold Festival, the festivities opened with the coronation of Cynthia Xanos as Marigold Queen at the Pekin riverfront, followed by the arrival at the foot of Court Street of a group of Voyageur canoeists who were reenacting the expeditions of French explorers Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette through the states of Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin that summer. The festival also featured the now traditional Marigold Parade and a carnival, along with dinners, music festivals, an art fair, and a visit from the King Brothers Circus.

Since the festival was conceived by members of the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce as a way to honor the memory of Pekin’s late Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen (1896-1969), the first festival’s committee scheduled public readings from Dirksen’s speeches and writings on the first three days of the festival, along with a special reception for Dirksen’s widow Louella at the Pekin Country Club on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 26, 1973. An invitation-only benefit ball for the Dirksen Library (originally located at the Pekin Public Library, now in its own building on the east end of town on Broadway) took place on Saturday, Aug. 25.

In this Pekin Daily Times photograph, Pekin's first Marigold Queen Cynthia Xanos, right, chats with Mrs. Everett M. Dirksen and Mrs. Dirksen's daughter, Mrs. Howard Baker, during the Marigold Ball at the Pekin Country Club, Saturday, Aug. 25, 1973, one of the main events of the First Annual Marigold Festival.

In this Pekin Daily Times photograph, Pekin’s first Marigold Queen Cynthia Xanos, right, chats with Mrs. Everett M. Dirksen and Mrs. Dirksen’s daughter, Mrs. Howard Baker, during the Marigold Ball at the Pekin Country Club, Saturday, Aug. 25, 1973, one of the main events of the First Annual Marigold Festival.

To promote the late Senator’s favorite flower – and bolster Pekin’s self-bestowed title of “Marigold Capital of the World” – the planning committee not only organized a flower show and contest at the Pekin Mall on Thursday, Aug. 30, but in the months leading up to the festival also strongly encouraged Pekinites to plant marigolds.

In a 1973 promotional advertisement expressing hope for the blooming of 250,000 to 300,000 marigolds, the planners stated, “We take this opportunity to encourage your youth groups, men’s club, and other church organizations to participate in this festival by planting your grounds with as many marigolds as possible. . . There are seven varieties of marigolds the committee has chosen for their ease in planting and growing, as well as for their abundance of bloom. They are: Lemon Drop, Aquarius, King Tut, Mediterranean Moon, Bolero, Sparky, and First Lady. . . . We want each block in Pekin alive with MARI-GOLD. Our major planting weekend will be May 24th through May 27.”

The Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection maintains archival folders for each year’s Marigold Festival. Included in the 1973 Marigold Festival folder is a copy of the minutes from the Oct. 2, 1972 planning committee meeting at the Chamber of Commerce offices. From those minutes, we learn that the committee members were Dorothy Doan, Elaine Jefferson, Tom Hallett, Gene Sangalli, John Turnell, Lee Williams, Julian Smith, John Walker, and Henry VanderHeyden (who was absent from the Oct. 2 meeting).

“Meeting was called to order at 4:05 p.m. John Turnell was appointed Treasurer of the Committee. Mark Heine was appointed to Publicity. Lee Williams was appointed as Secretary,” the minutes say. Turnell served as the festival’s general chairman.

Tasks and duties were then assigned to each committee member, with local horticulturalist Sangalli naturally being given the role of Grower’s Coordinator – “To designate five types of Marigolds to be promoted. To discuss the promotion with the growers solicitating (sic) their cooperation. To provide Mark Heine with mats. To assist in the development of planning planting designs.” Hallett was named Retailer’s Coordinator, Heine was in charge of the publicity campaign, Williams was Industry/Business Coordinator, VanderHeyden was Governmental Coordinator, Walker was Special Events Coordinator, and Jefferson and Doan were Service Club Coordinators.

The committee’s hard work was deemed to have paid off: after the festival, the Pekin Daily Times reported that the 10-day event was a “tremendous success,” and the planning committee immediately began to solicit ideas from the public in preparation for the 2nd Annual Marigold Festival. A few years later, the ever-popular Marigold Medallion Hunt was added, and the event was fixed for the weekend following Labor Day in September. The festival no longer extends over a 10-day period, but still carries on the essential traditions of the original celebration in 1973.

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