In his 1981 hit Big City, Merle Haggard croons, “Turn me loose; set me free somewhere in the middle of Montana.” It seems Haggard wanted to be dropped in Lewistown, the geographic center of Montana, where the pace feels decades slower. Surrounded by wide-open ranch country and five mountain ranges, the town of fewer than 6,000 souls has an unintentional “retro” Main Street. Amid tack shops and book stores, one can find espresso, Wilcoxson’s Ice Cream and–on the first Saturday after Labor Day–just about every chokecherry delicacy imaginable.
“Lewistown bills itself as the Chokecherry Capitol of the World” says Tom Petrenek, a Paul Bunyan look-alike who has been Pit Spitting Champion of the Chokecherry Festival nearly every year since the event’s inception in 1989. “No one has challenged us for that title, so I guess we probably are!”
Chokecherry Festival pays homage to the tart, maroon-colored berries that grow wild on bushes throughout Fergus County. Though locals generally enjoy chokecherries raw (be prepared to pucker!) or in jams, jellies and wine, Native Americans dried them for winter consumption or ground them in pemmican.
The event kicks off at 7:00 am on Saturday morning with the Kiwanis Club Breakfast of fluffy flapjacks dripping with chokecherry syrup. Both the Culinary Judging and Chokecherry Run (5K and 10K) begin at 9:00 am. A large crowd gathers at the Lewistown Art Center at 10:00 am to sample Culinary Contest entries—where guests can taste everything from chokecherry jams, mustards, breads, cakes and cordials to salsas and soups.
Lining both sides of Main Street, 160 vendors sell everything from pottery, knit hats, glassware and lumpia (Pilipino egg rolls) to garden vegetables, chokecherry teas, pies, muffins, and jelly rolls. Top it off with live music and kids activities, and it’s the perfect central Montana day.
And as long as you’re in the area, you might as well check out What the Hay? down the road in Hobson on Sunday.