As the La Habra Corn Festival celebrates nearly seven decades this month, I feel compelled to ask the obvious: Is there—forgive me, was there ever—any corn growing in the home of the corn festival?
Because I’ve never seen any. Actually, it can be hard to find much corn anywhere in the county. In many local communities, particularly those with homeowners associations, it’s against the rules to grow corn because some people think it’s an eyesore.
As a transplanted upper Midwesterner, I miss fresh corn straight from the field, hot and buttered, this time of year. Along the road near where I grew up, I knew it was August because the corn grew high enough to create a tunnel effect as we drove along the roads.
As it turns out, corn-forlorn people like me are why the La Habra festival first began in 1949. I tracked down a few members of the Lions Club, who raise thousands of dollars for charities every year with the corn festival. No, the Lions told me, there isn’t any corn growing in La Habra, and as far as they know, there never was.
Turns out, the corn festival was a marketing gimmick from the start.
This place has always had a reputation for the con, starting with the orange in Orange County. The name was suggested in 1871, only six months after anyone thought to plant an orange seed. It conjured a sweet image for anyone thinking of moving here. So the supposed orange-grove paradise began as an ad, became reality, and now it’s back, full circle, as an ad.
The savvy La Habra Host Lions Club could have picked from a variety of themes when the annual festival began after World War II. There was a bustling citrus and packing industry in the city, and the Hass Avocado was born there in 1926 from a chance seedling planted by a mail carrier. But the transplanted Midwesterners and Mexicans who populated La Habra in the rural mid-20th century missed good corn on the cob. So Lions president Liz Steves says the residents became unlikely corn boosters. For years, in addition to eating corn, the Lions held a square dance.
Locals tell me the city of more than 60,000 residents comes alive during the festival. About 75,000 people are expected to consume 14,000 ears of corn during the weekend, Aug. 7 to 9. The Corn Festival Parade, which takes place Saturday morning, is among the oldest and largest summer parades in Southern California, with about 25,000 fans lining La Habra Boulevard.
Steves, the Lions president whose family for years owned a car dealership in town, says the festival brings people together in an old-fashioned way that until recently was the hallmark of La Habra.
“The biggest change that’s come over La Habra is that we had a lot of mom-and-pop stores that are now gone, including our auto industry,” she says. “Everything’s become more corporate.”
These days, the festival has become a reunion “where you come to see the neighbors who moved away, the people who you used to go to church with,” says Dennis Skiles, 59, a singer whose family has lived in La Habra for decades. “It’s always fun to run into someone I haven’t seen in five years. I like to go and reminisce.”
There are a few small-town markers at the corn festival that I hope the city never loses, including a cutest-baby contest, a corn-eating competition, an apple pie-baking prize, and a car raffle, with the Corn Queen (now Miss La Habra) riding around in the car beforehand to sell tickets. For decades, the car they raffled was a Thunderbird, but this year they’re raffling a 2014 Fiat.
There used to be a pig raffle, too—the hog was always named Cornfetti—though that contest was discontinued after some porcine chaos. In the early 1970s, the Lions decided to parade the pig out to Angel Stadium to sell raffle tickets pegged to his own demise. Apparently Cornfetti had other thoughts. Says Skiles, whose father was there when it happened: “They were afraid they were going to have to forfeit the game because the pig got loose and was running around the stadium.”
Miscues aside, what blew me away when my family moved here from Wisconsin in 1979 is Orange County’s palpable sense of possibility. The founders tapped into that by naming the place Orange before there were many oranges. Walt Disney created an alternate universe. Starting with just a drive-up church, the late Rev. Robert Schuller built “possibility thinking” into an evangelical empire.
So yes, a few Lions in La Habra created an illusion of great fields of corn where there were none. And why not?