An account of the 1998 Burgoo in Arenzville, Illinois, which celebrates an annual festival which produces 1,800 gallons of soup and sells it all during a two-day celebration with friends and neighbors.


boy in wagon

by Molly Daniel

Though I have attended the Arenzville Burgoo dozens of times so far in my life, only recently did I realize how little I know about the traditions surrounding this event in my own hometown.

As a child, I saw the Burgoo as the last chance for some summer fun with my friends, and I could hardly wait for the school day to end so we could race uptown to the carnival rides.

As a young adult, I was only mildly intrigued with the festival and its traditions, content to have my one bowl of soup a year and marvel at the endurance of the men in the long white aprons as they stood for hours stirring the boiling kettles. Somehow I managed to escape being drafted for duty on one of the many Burgoo committees, and I always steered clear of the all-night soup preparations because Ron Fricke had me convinced that, during the wee hours, the cooks tossed in various unappetizing ingredients, such as toads, stray cats and other critters.

Like countless other sons and daughters of the community, I grew up and moved away after high school. My job and the many miles to Arenzville kept me from returning for the Burgoo. Despite the distance, each year at Burgoo time I would wonder how it was all going -- was the soup good this year? Did they have a large crowd? Does Coach Kemp still work in the hamburger tent? Does anyone still bring homemade gooseberry pie to sell? Does Gerald Beard still invent just enough categories for the Pet Parade so that every kid manages to win a prize?

Now that my husband and I live in Illinois again, I've had the chance to attend the Burgoo for the last couple years, and I am seeing it through fresh eyes. Or maybe I just never really knew that much about it in the first place. For instance, I had never even seen how burgoo was made, and if you had asked me, I couldn't even tell you the first step. So this year, I decided I would go to Arenzville a day early and pay attention to all that is done to make the Burgoo happen.

Part I - Cleaning and Chopping

Armed with my trusty 35 mm camera and several rolls of film, I set out on Thursday morning across central Illinois, driving through the flat prairie. I'm surprised to see that the cornfields are turning golden brown and losing the last streaks of green in their stalks. A few miles further west and I encounter the first cornpicker in the fields, spewing dust and chaff from the back and gobbling up corn rows in the front. It occurs to me that the Burgoo will mean double duty for many farmers who are eager to get their crops in but have obligated themselves to chores in town, too.

By mid-afternoon, I am gliding down Beeley Hill and rolling into town. Mom is waiting for me at home, and after we refresh ourselves with a glass of iced tea, she gathers up her potato peeler and a couple of paring knives, and we drive to the town park. The vegetable preparation committee is already hard at work cleaning, peeling and chopping vegetables for 1,800 gallons of burgoo.

people cleaning veggies

A Tank of Onions sits in the foreground as about 25 people work steadily at peeling and chopping vegetables for the next two days of burgoo cooking

This is something I have never seen before, and I am astounded at the quantity of vegetables which must be prepared for the two nights of soup cooking. About twenty-five people are busy working on the piles of fresh vegetables. They are seated on folding chairs under the park's picnic shelter, arranged in two circles with buckets of raw vegetables at their feet. The finished product goes into dishpans which are emptied into large horse tanks, one for each ingredient.

Three or four people are gathered around a big washtub, scrubbing celery and trimming off the ends. Off to the side, a group of men are working with an industrial-sized vegetable chopper, feeding in handfuls of carrots and catching the slices in a dishpan. They feed in the vegetables as fast as the other group can clean or peel them.

It's the onion-peelers I feel sorry for, and I ask them how long their job will take. "We've been at it since about 2:00 p.m.," says Kate Lovekamp, " and we usually finish up around 6:00 or 7:00." They peel and quarter the onions as long as they can stand it, and sometimes they switch to carrots or celery just for a change of pace. The group works steadily on their task, but a festive atmosphere seems to make the job easier. They are mostly the parents of my high school friends, and there are a few younger members in the group. They visit while they work, but the work never slows.

They are all working on the carrots, celery and onions. The potatoes have already been cleaned and roughly peeled by a potato-peeling machine the town purchased a few years ago. Later, they will also clean and chop several pounds of cabbage. When they are finished, they will have cleaned, peeled and chopped enough fresh vegetables for both nights' cooking crews.

men chopping celery

Food Processors -- John Crawford, Dave Carls and Dean Stock feed peeled carrots into a vegetable chopper. (Ray Stocker in the background.)

They work as diligently as if the vegetables were going in a soup in their own kitchens, and even on the last bucket of celery they are particular about scrubbing away dried leaves and trimming off dry ends.

Marci Burrus cleans celery
Doris Lovekamp peels carrots
Cele Burrus cleans carrots
Marci Burrus
Doris Jane Lovekamp
Cele Burrus
Kate chops onions
Maxine chops onions
Ellen cleans veggies
Kate Lovekamp

Maxine Crawford

Ellen Stocker

Maxine cleans celery
Maxine Beard

Roberta and Merle peel onions
Roberta Clark and Merle Lovekamp

Jeane peels onions
Jeane Clark

Millie checks instructions
Millie Beard, Marci Burrus, and Maxine Beard

Dave leans on tank of carrots
Dave Carls and the finished carrots.
Iced down tank of potatoes
The finished potatoes, iced down and ready to use.
Althea checks the celery
Tony Thomas, Althea Carls and the finished celery.

Continued ...


  © 2023 Molly Daniel  

This page last modified: 08/25/2023