A Passion for Pickles

by | May 1, 2011 | Community, Features

Pucker up Pickle Lovers! The 20th annual Atkins PickleFest is Friday and Saturday, May 20 and 21. Sponsored by People for a Better Atkins (PBA) and Teen PBA, this pickle party packs a peck of people with its pickle canning, pickle eating and pickle juice drinking contests, and its Pickle Pageant crowning Little Miss Sweet and Little Mr. Dill May 14th. 

Deep-fried pickles are a PickleFest specialty. The city’s signature dish was developed across the street from the Atkins pickle plant at the old Duchess Drive-In by deep-fried pickle inventor, Bernell “Fatman” Austin, who died in 1999.

But pickles alone don’t make a meal, so the PBA PickleFest people have added a rodeo and parade, Army National Guard Humvee and Artillery display, live entertainment, crafts booths, bingo, horse shoe pitching, a quilt show and a tractor pull.
PickleFest could have shriveled like a cucumber in brine when Hunt Foods (formerly Atkins) closed the pickle factory in 2002 after 55 years of production. But soon the pickle plant was reopened as a chicken processing facility owned by Twin Rivers Processing and many of the workers traded pickles for chickens.

But like the pickling process itself, Atkins preserved its identity as Pickle City USA and the city of 3,400 still celebrate its love for green condiments.
Atkin’s passion for pickles began in 1946 when a group of local citizens raised $17,000 to secure a loan to entice the Goldsmith Pickle Company of Chicago to purchase land and build a pickle processing factory there.
A few years later the pickle business was purchased by the E.G. Watkins family who hired Robert Switzer, a chemist who improved the flavor and crispness of the cucumber pickles and developed “Tomolives” or pickled baby tomatoes.
The pickle business was the main source of income in Atkins area for more than half a century. At one time the plant produced a variety of sweet and dill pickles, relish and pickled tomatoes plus pickled okra, peppers, and onions. Packed in their distinctively flavored juices, the jars all carried the colorful Atkins label featuring a red barn and happy farmer in straw hat holding a bushel of fresh picked cucumbers.

As ownership changed over the year, new managers like Russell Dilks and Scotty Wallace joined the pickle business and improved product and production, making Atkins Pickles a nationally-popular brand. One year the plant produced 7.5 million cases of pickles.
The city’s proximity to truck farmers who had a ready market for their fresh cucumbers and to transportation corridors like the Arkansas River, railroad and I-40 made it an ideal spot for a pickle factory. Work was also available at the plant and during the plant’s hey-day, it employed up to 500 workers during the peak fresh-pack (sweet pickle) season.
In 1985, Dean Foods purchased the factory but continued the city’s pickle- packing tradition under their own labels until 2002, when Dean closed the plant and moved its pickle operation to Texas. This ended Atkins’ 55 year run as the pickle capital of Arkansas.
According to Stephen Kent, retired Atkins and Dean Plant Supervisor and former Mayor of Atkins, closing the plant was a great loss to Atkins. “The pickle plant was our main employer and usually employed 200 and up to 450 or 500 during the busy summer season. The plant also had a high rate of (city) water consumption, so we lost a lot of revenue when Dean closed the plant.”

Despite the 2002 closing, PickleFest continued until 2005, when PBA held a contest to rename the festival. The name “Chickenfest” was suggested but the group decided on Atkins Spring Jubilee for 2005. That name soured quickly, so the name PickleFest returned in 2006.
One of the enduring highlights of the festival is the pickle juice drinking contest, a competition mainly for the strong of stomach and young at heart. Imagine chugging a quart of more of seasoned salt and vinegar brine as fast as you can; then try keeping it down.
“It gets pretty rough, sometimes” said Charles May, whose wife Shirley May, is Chairman of this year’s PickleFest. “We keep buckets for contestants to use since they often get sick from drinking the pickle juice.”
Did May ever try it? “Oh no, that’s not for me,” chuckled May who worked summers as a teenager at the Atkins plant. “The pickle juice drinking contest mainly attracts teenagers who have strong stomachs and are willing to try anything once,” he explained.
While only a few people have a taste for pickle brine, almost everyone likes some kind of pickles whether sweet, sour, Polish or Kosher. Imagine taking a bite of your favorite pickle. Feel the crispness, hear the crunch and taste the tangy flavor. Makes your mouth water, doesn’t it?


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