All for the love of an onion

The Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival has bloomed over the past three decades.

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Hope Wirtzberger, age 7 when this photo was shot in 2007, puts the finishing touches on the onion she decorated while her mother Rebecca holds it steady at the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival. The festival has come a long way since its origins, and the 28th annual event will be held this weekend.

Who'da thunk two women dressed as onions as part of a taste-off for national bragging rights for best sweet onions would lead to one of Walla Walla's signature festivals.

"It was an invitational tasting competition on Main Street," said Carolyn Keyes, one of the original participants on that day nearly three decades ago. Representatives from sweet onion growing regions around the country were asked to do a blind taste test.

"We invited Hawaii, Texas, Georgia. We set up the old white parade grandstand. I actually dressed up as a sweet onion. It was the precursor to the festival. Connie Loomer -- Connie Haun then -- also dressed up as a sweet onion so we were two onions together. We had a blast."

In the beginning, Carolyn said it was just called the Sweet Onion Taste Competition and the Chamber of Commerce oversaw the event. The parade was small, just big enough to bring the dignitaries to the parade stand for the tasting.

Nowadays the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival has become a kind of downtown carnival, with the 28th annual event to take place Saturday and Sunday. The famous gourmet onion, in a new first this year, also will be feted in special menus at 14 local restaurants in this week's run-up to the big weekend.

"If you're not growing, you're dying," said Kathy Fry-Trommald, director of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee. "I've always tried to add some growth."

Keyes gives the late Wes Colley, who was president of the Sweet Onion Association, credit for helping to get the event rolling years ago.

Everyone got onboard.

"The farmers all got behind it," she said. "We had a parade, an onion toss, we had a fun run, the Onionman. It was a family festival with onion bag races, onion contests like the longest sprout competition and the chili cook off."

From Main Street it later took up residence in Fort Walla Walla Park. From there it moved to the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds.

"People were happy with it at the fairgrounds," Fry-Trommald said. "They liked the evolution and the growth. They liked the grass and the shade."

With encouragement from downtown merchants and tourism associations, however, the festival returned to downtown with hopes it could be even a bigger tourism draw.

The event has been downtown for the past five years, the first year in a large area on Main Street from First to Fourth Avenue.

"That was too much space," Fry-Trommald said. And it was dangerous because Second Avenue couldn't be closed off.

So it evolved and moved west of Second Avenue the next year, with kids activities on the Courthouse lawn. After that, it was situated between Second and Fourth, but Third couldn't be closed off because of the police station there.

"Well, guess what? The police station isn't there any more so we can close off Third," Fry-Trommald said. "It's a perfect layout this year, with good areas of shade.

This year, she said, nearly 40 vendors and live music performers will set up between Second and Fourth, with food vendors and demonstrations between Third and Fourth.

A veteran of 12 past Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festivals, she's also delegating more of the work.

"This year will be more festive with pole banners downtown, lots of sponsors and great new energy," she said. There is a greater focus on food, such as the sweet onion soup competition, the third annual salad "slaw-ter" and the sweet onion salsa competition. And making a return for children younger than 15 is the onion eating contest at 2 p.m. Sunday.

The festival, a natural offshoot from an onion harvest that has always been a celebrated part of local Italian culture, started out with one large canopy.

"Now we have two canopies, one for food demonstrations, competitions and shade and one for the beer garden that opens at noon," Fry-Trommald said.

The whole event will take the work of about 60 volunteers.

"It's a big party and the party groweth," she said.

Karlene Ponti can be reached at 509-526-8324 or karleneponti@wwub.com

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