ST. MARYS - What began as a shipment of an unusual onion has grown into an annual festival.
Randy Nutter, of the United Methodist Men of St. Marys United Methodist Church, said the Sweet Breath of Spring Vidalia Onion Festival was in its eighth year on Saturday.
"We have more people selling crafts this year and I think we have the same number of vendors," Nutter said. "We have a number of different groups here."
Making hamburgers featuring Vidalia onions were members of the Onion Gang, from left, Debbie Metz, Erwin Berry and Dave Robey. (Photo by Jeffrey Saulton)
Nutter said there were no new contests added to the event, which featured the "Best Pie in Pleasants County" contest and pie auction, the onion eating contest and the Onion Queen pageant.
The festival has its roots in the annual shipment of the sweet Vidalia onions, Nutter said.
Edwin Berry, a member of the "onion gang," said the annual shipment was started by Robert "Coonie" Pryor and Bill Hammet during the early 1980s. Berry said the current festival is from a promise made to Pryor that was not kept until years later.
"I promised Bill and Coonie I would keep it going after they died and I didn't," he said. "All these guys jumped in and did it."
Pryor began the shipment after tasting Vidalia onions during a visit to his brother-in-law in Georgia, the home of the onion. At that time the variety of onion was little-known outside of Georgia. He brought back a few bags but people were reluctant to buy them due to their higher price. However, their popularity began to grow and the shipments began.
Berry said a number of the organizers completed the "40 Days of Purpose" by Pastor Rick Warren and they decided they would bring back the onion shipment and a festival as a community service project.
"It has grown into a true community service project since the whole community is involved," he said. "We started back in 2005."
Berry said the Vidalia onion shipment from Georgia in the 1980s was not part of any festival but it was something people in St. Marys started to look forward to every year.
"Bill and Coonie would bring them back to town just as a service to the community," he said. "When Bill got too busy, Coonie asked me to ride down with him and Coonie's son, Robert Pryor Jr., would go down there with us."
On Saturday, Berry and others were making hamburgers at the festival featuring the sweet onion as one of the toppings.
"This is just a sideline for us," he said. "It gives us something to do but sell onions, we try not to duplicate what others are doing."
Jim McKnight, one of the organizers, said they sell about 1,200 bags of onions each season. He said the onions arrived in town on Thursday, they began selling them Friday and will continue to sell until they run out. He said most years they are completely sold out by the end of the festival.
McKinght said the festival started as a benefit to aid to local men who had Hepatitis C. After that he said they decided to establish the fund through the Pleasants Community Foundation called the "Major Medical - Emergency Fund."