ALTON — It wasn’t just the chocolate that brought people to the Bohemian Cultural Center. It also was the tradition and the sense of community.
More than three dozen people of all ages filled the tables Saturday afternoon in the hall for the 17th annual Alton Chocolate Festival in this Osborne County community of approximately 100 people.
“We’ve got a very active community,” Virl Gregory said as he watched a cake walk in front of the small stage. “It’s nice to see a community this small bring out a crowd like this.”
In addition to the cake walk, the afternoon includes games of bingo and pass the ornament, a bake sale and cookie contest. A lunch stand also was offered at the American Legion building.
The festival was started to honor Alton as the birthplace of Russell Stover. Stover grew up on an Iowa farm, according to the candy company’s website, but he was born in a sod house in Alton on May 6, 1888. He married Clara Lewis in 1911, and they lived in several states and Canada, with Stover getting into the candy business while experimenting with their own candy making.
In 1921, Stover partnered with a teacher who, while moonlighting as a soda jerk, invented a chocolate-covered ice-cream sandwich. They dubbed it Eskimo Pie, and it took the country by storm.
In 1923, Stover sold his share of the business and moved to Denver, where he and Clara started to make their own chocolate candies. The Russell Stover company soon was based in Kansas City, and at the time of his death in 1954, produced 11 million pounds of candy a year. Today, the company is the third-largest chocolate manufacturer in the country.
When Alton’s chocolate festival started, the company provided chocolates and other support, but that’s no longer the case, said Wilda Carswell, president of Alton PRIDE.
Nevertheless, the celebration continues and brings people to town.
Nancy Diekman, Wichita, made her first visit to the festival Saturday with her husband, Jim, who grew up in Alton. Winning two rounds of bingo added to the fun, she said.
Others look forward to the chocolate festival every year.
“Bringing my kids has been a tradition since they were little. We don’t like to miss it,” Alton resident Julie Peterson said.
Her daughter, Anna Peterson, now is a student at Fort Hays State University, but returned for the festival, dressed to celebrate in a light-up Christmas sweater and Christmas tights.
While Julie said this was the first year in a while she hadn’t entered the cookie baking contest, it was Anna’s first year in the adult contest. Her Christmas tree bar cookies took second place.
Judging the contest’s six categories was Isaac Wilson, pastor at Osborne Free Methodist Church; Dorothy Ellsworth, pastor at Osborne United Methodist Church; and Anna Schremmer, family and consumer science agent with Phillips County Extension.
The judges spent the afternoon in the kitchen of the hall, taste-testing all of the entries. The rules are fairly simple: Each cookie must have chocolate as an ingredient, and 15 cookies must be entered. Some go to the judges, while others go into the bake sale. Prizes are awarded in two categories — bar and cookie — in categories for adults, youth and PRIDE members.
Spending all afternoon eating chocolate might sound enviable, but all three judges admitted to being quite full by the final round of judging.
“If we have six or more entries in a category, we have semifinals,” said Deanna Roach of the PRIDE committee. “We have three rounds of semifinals this time.”
“It’s hard,” said Ellsworth, who was judging her first contest Saturday.
“We’re mainly going on flavor, but when something’s really close, I look at presentation. It’s mainly flavor today,” Schremmer said.