Crescent, Minn. sold 1,000 pounds of morels from a trailer. They buy the mushrooms from hunters across the Midwest and usually sell wholesale to farmer’s markets. They made a special trip to Richmond, and sold gallon bags full of morels for $40.
Old and young mushroom lovers flooded the self-proclaimed “mushroom capital of the world.” Other self-proclaimed mushroom capitals exist. But on the first weekend of May, in Richmond, those other claims don’t matter. Every Richmond resident knows this, even those too old and frail to attend the festivities.
Spectators packed a makeshift grandstand at the steps of the old courthouse. Festival Coordinator Dean Snow drove across town in a John Deere Gator. He carried a treasure chest - a red cooler containing entries for the biggest morel contest. Heralded by the high school jazz band, Snow stepped on stage to roaring applause.
He exhibited the mushrooms one by one, and finally raised the winning 9.2 ounce spore high in the air.
Snow’s fist couldn’t close around the morel’s base. Arm-outstretched, he looked like a rural king presenting a royal-mushroom scepter. Orra Slade, of Henrietta, Mo. won the $50 grand prize.
In previous years, the winning mushroom was as large as one and a half pounds.
A parade followed the contest. Beauty queens, hell’s angels and shriners streamed through town with clowns and civil war reenactors. Arts and crafts displays mixed with wooden morel cutouts. Festival Grand Marshal Jerry Armstrong, member of University of Texas, El Paso’s first NCAA championship team (depicted in the recent Disney film “Glory Road”) and former Richmond High School basketball coach, accepted an award. Children twirled through the air on carnival rides.
The community was alive.
Mushroom capital of the world?
Snow is the only remaining member of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce responsible for founding the festival 26 years ago.
Drinking coffee in a local shop, Snow and five others deliberated bringing a festival to the normally dreary town square. They almost started a “crowfoot festival,” after the leafy, spinach-like weed growing across Ray County.
Then Snow had an epiphany - a mushroom festival. Snow said morels epitomize the coming of spring. In spring, the woods of Ray County are flush with mushroom hunters. So they decided to declare themselves “mushroom capital of the world.”
“It really draws community together,” he said. “Everybody profits when you have a big festival in your town.”
Richmond’s mayor, Tom Morman reaffirmed the world-capital claim made 26 years ago. “Ours is authentic,” he said. But Director of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, Jerry McCarter, acknowledged that other towns also make the claim. Richmond is joined by a spattering of other “mushroom capitals of the world” across America (and the globe).
McCarter said he remembers a friendly e-mail correspondence concerning the topic a few years ago.
McCarter said a fellow employee was “razzing” Kennett Square, Pa. about their title.
The debate became more complicated when the Kennett Square Chamber of Commerce received word from somewhere in China also making a “mushroom capital of the world” claim.
Regardless, Kathi Lafferty, spokesperson for the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival believes in her town’s position.
“The thing about it is here, that southeast Pennsylvania grows 59 percent of the nation’s cultivated mushrooms,” Lafferty said. “And most of that is concentrated here in our area, in Chester county.”
Lafferty said Kennett Square’s 21st annual mushroom festival, which took place last September, focused on the agricultural industry. She said they don’t care as much about wild mushrooms like morels.
“I’m willing to give them the morel mushroom capital of the world,” Lafferty said. “The other thing is that we are the mushroom capital of the free world.”
Some towns limit their ambition to being the mushroom capital of their states, like Madisonville, Texas and Muscoda, Wisc.
Mesick, Mich. on the other hand, has been claiming the “mushroom capital of the world” title for 47 years, when the Mesick Mushroom Festival began.
Louis Hughes, spokesperson for the Lion’s Club, which sponsors the event, said Richmond is way behind.
“They can’t really be the capital of the world because we are,” Hughes said. “Ask them if they can pick morel mushrooms by the bushel. That’s what makes you the capital of the world.”
McCarter conceded that Richmond’s festival isn’t as old as the Mesick festival, but he’s seen plenty of local morel bushels. McCarter didn’t dispute Mesick’s claim, instead he said there’s room for multiple mushroom capitals of the world.
“We’re glad to share the title with them,” he said. “They must be good people or they wouldn’t hunt mushrooms.”
Mesick has more immediate rivals than Richmond anyway. Boyne City, Mich. is 84 miles north of Mesick and also claims the mushroom capital of the world title. Boyne City’s festival began one year after Mesick’s.
“We talk back and forth with the people up there,” Hughes said. “They claim to be the best spot in the world for mushrooms and so do we, but I guess there isn’t really a way to gauge that.”
Hughes said the point of the Mesick festival is to celebrate the coming of spring. That celebration is evident at every festival across America.
“It’s kind of a common bond with everybody that lives in the area,” Hughes said. “In the spring, you run into each other out in the woods, and you have people that only come to this area for the festival, and you see them every year. They keep coming back.”
Snow observes the same scenario in Richmond. Year after year, hunters and their families return to time-honored spots. Snow began hunting with his dad when he was in high school and still returns to the same spots.
While driving through Richmond’s woods during springtime, Snow said he sees others doing the same thing.
“You’ll see a car stopped, and everybody will hide what they’re carrying so it doesn’t draw more attention to them,” he said. “But the thing about it is, if you’re driving along the road and see someone in the woods, you know what there looking for.”
Then, the next day, he’ll sneak back to the spot and check it out himself.
Snow said the golden rule in mushroom hunting is, “Where we go is strictly confidential, and you don’t tell people where you found them.”
Even so, an online community of morel hunters shares their hunting stories, and despite the golden rule, some hunters share advice with fellow foragers. Online message boards can be found at morelmushroomhunting.com and morels.com among others.
Eighty years of hunting mushrooms
Jean Hamacher, 83, wasn’t at the Richmond festival’s biggest morel contest or parade for the first time this year. She stopped by briefly on the first day to look at the arts and crafts, but was too tired to return. She was still recovering from pneumonia, which she caught while mushroom hunting along the Iowa-Missouri border with three friends.
Instead, she sat comfortably in her home three blocks away from Richmond’s town square and the festival. She sat with her oxygen tank and afghans. A spice rack hung on the wall, adorned with little mushroom statuettes and dried morels from years past.
Hamacher began hunting morels with her mother when she was three years old. She was born in Orrick, Mo, and moved to nearby Richmond after getting married. She has hunted morels in Ray County her entire life.
She used to tag along with her mother and a neighbor. They searched the man-made levees along the nearby Missouri River.
Those levees became obsolete and crumbled after the U.S. Corps of Engineers built heavy-duty clay levees in the 1930s and ‘40s. The new levees channelized the river and confined the once sprawling flood plain.
Despite the landscape changes, Hamacher still returns from successful mushroom hunts weighted down by sacks of morels. And she still cooks a fried morel feast for friends and family - just like her mother did. Although, she’s been too tired to cook her morels this year.
Hamacher said morels give spring a magical quality.
“It’s a binding force for someone who loves it,” she said. “No one else can understand it.”
As the years pass, she recaptures her youth in the Missouri woods. But with age, the spring-time trips have become more difficult.
The group of friends who she has gone mushroom hunting with for the past six years along the Iowa border has shrunk.
This year, one remained home fighting cancer. And three years ago, one of the group, her best friend Sara Weary, passed away.
Hamacher said she misses her “soul mate in mushroom hunting” every day, especially in the spring. But still she goes looking for morels. Hamacher said she will continue as long as she is physically able.
“It’s the highlight of the year, the most interesting adventure there is, to find mushrooms and to get into the woods,” she said. “We love the woods. I’m a nature lover, and don’t feel like it’s spring until I get out into the woods.”