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Onion Festival celebrates new and old traditions

By Gretel Kauffman

The first Onion Festival, also known as Field Day, was on Saturday, Aug. 14, 1937.  Almost 5,000 people gathered at the Four Corners (Main, Chapel and Mechanic streets) to take part in the parade and other festivities such as bicycle races, dancing, tire-racing, water fights and a pie-eating contest.

Barbie Ognibene, who is the chairman of the festival, says that it was originally planned to celebrate the harvest.

"The farmers wanted everyone to get together for harvest time, when they were all harvesting their crops," says Ognibene, who has been involved in the planning of the festival for 21 years.

Today, the two-day event is held at the Elba Park, and most of the original activities, such as rolling-pin throwing and the soap-box derby, have been replaced by carnival rides and games.

However, many of the old traditions, such as the crowning of the Onion Queen and the Elba Volunteer Fire Department’s car raffle, still remain, and of course the "onion spirit" is still alive. Onion soup, rings, and petals will be available, as well as bags of Elba onions. The parade, another beloved tradition, will kick off the festivities at 7 p.m. on Friday.

Ognibene says that to many native Elbans, the Onion Festival is more than just a carnival:

“A lot of people plan their vacations around this weekend. There's going to be a high school class reunion, two weddings and several family reunions."

Ognibene says that although all the profit from the festival goes to the Volunteer Fire Department, the event is really more about keeping a fun tradition alive than fundraising. 

"It's really more of a service act," she says. "The fire department gets one-hundred percent of the profits, and that's put towards serving the community."

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