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Rhubarb rage: Aledo busy harvesting pie plant ahead of Rhubarb Fest

In order to make the thousands of pies, crisps and other rhubarb treats at Rhubarb Fest, first all the plants need to be picked. Many, many times.

ALEDO, Ill. — It's the busiest time of the year in the Rhubarb Capital of Illinois where rhubarb is all the rage. 

Aledo was dubbed the Rhubarb Capital of Illinois in 2007, in honor of its annual Rhubarb Fest, happening for the 31st year on June 2 and 3. 

The festival was started in 1990 by Darlene Johnson as a way to draw people to the area and to visit her cousin's shop. The first year, she offered samples of 12 rhubarb dishes, drawing a crowd of 67 people. These days, rhubarb can be found growing all over the small town, and the festival draws a crowd of 10,000 from all over the country.

"It's a very unique thing for our town and it's something that we love to celebrate," said Rhubarb Fest volunteer Pam Ricke. "It's hard to say how many people (grow rhubarb), but if you drive around town and look by people's garages and their sheds, you will see a lot more rhubarb than you expect."

At the event, all sorts of rhubarb treats are sold from pies to crisps to lemonades. There's also rhubarb samplings, and 12,000 free seeds are given away so even more patches can be grown.

Last year, over 4,000 rhubarb pies were sold.

"There's four cups of rhubarb, so you can guess about a dozen stalks, maybe, of rhubarb," said Annette Speer, a board member and volunteer. "A dozen stalks times 4,000 pies. That's a lot of stalks. And this is only the pies that we count. We don't count the crisps and the cobblers, the jams, the jellies."

Speer is one of many people who's been busy harvesting the pie plant over the last month so all those treats can be made. She said they'll keep picking until the night Rhubarb Fest is over so they have enough.

"You beg, borrow and steal the rhubarb from whoever has it," she said. "Rhubarb Fest has its own patch. Some of the churches have their own patches. A lot of people won't tell you where their patches are because they don't want anybody going in and taking them, which has happened. Every once in awhile, you'll see something on Facebook, 'Somebody's stole my rhubarb.' And we know why, because it's a hot commodity in this town."

Once it's all picked, the rhubarb gets cleaned and chopped up. It can then be frozen before you're ready to start baking it. Most of the big baking days will be in the week leading up to the festival.

Freezer space, Speer said, is another hot commodity.

"I volunteer at our senior citizens center and we are now up to 100 of the rhubarb crisps in our freezer," Speer said. "We're begging, borrowing and stealing freezer space from everybody. Everybody knows this time of year you don't buy beef or anything because you need your freezer space for pies and everything else."

The pie plants will keep producing until July, so there will always be plenty more to pick in the weeks leading up to Rhubarb Fest. 

Even though it's hard work and Speer joked the best part is when it's done, she said it's all worth it in the end.

"Just sitting back and listening to the music and watching the people enjoy the rhubarb and just having fun is the best part," she said. "All over a stalk of rhubarb. Who would've thought it? But people enjoy it, so we'll provide."

The festival is free to the public. The full schedule of events can be found here.

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