Summer Issue 2020

"The Shroomers Are Coming": Presenting Local Folklife at the Mountain Mushroom Festival

By Francine Bonny

I am a long-time resident of Irvine, a small town along the Kentucky River in Estill County, 20 miles east of Richmond and 25 miles northeast of Berea. One of our traditions, the hunting of morel mushrooms, is so pervasive in the everyday lives of our residents that we named a festival after it. In 1991, with the help of a grant to improve Irvine’s downtown area, the City Council and a group of concerned citizens established the Mountain Mushroom Festival, to be held each year during the last full weekend in April, around the time that morel mushrooms are traditionally gathered. Since the beginning, the festival’s mission has been to promote Irvine’s local cultural heritage and economic development. A festival committee of 20 volunteers, in partnership with the community, presents a variety of activities, provides educational opportunities, and supports and promotes local organizations. The estimated audience in recent years has been between 20,000 and 40,000 people.

But something was missing. Like many festivals that are linked to traditions in name only, there was actually little about the Mountain Mushroom Festival that told the story of the rich tradition it represented. What you didn’t see were the “shroomers,” local mushroom hunters whose favorite pastime lent its name to the festival. Visitors would often remark that they had come to see the mushrooms and hear the story behind the tradition, but when they arrived, there was not much to see. By the time the festival started, any mushrooms found by local hunters were already sold, consumed by their own families, or not available due to poor weather conditions.  My good friend, artist Mary Reed, and I, among others on the festival committee, felt something needed to be done. With the help of the Kentucky Folklife Program and the Community Scholars program, we made the festival a premier destination that celebrates the rich folk traditions of the Irvine area by using interpretive signage, participatory narrative and foodways stages with local mushroom hunters, and a large interactive area designed to introduce visitors to the hunters themselves.

Hunting for morel (morchella) mushrooms has been a long-standing spring folk tradition in Estill County. The art of mushroom hunting is often passed on from generation to generation. Most mushroom hunters refer to the morel as “dry land fish” because of their slightly fishy taste. The wild edible morel mushroom is hollow, and the honeycomb or sponge-like cap sometimes hangs over the cylindrical stem.

Hunting for mushrooms can be almost meditative. It is easy to walk past them, but if you slow down and relax your vision, they often seem to appear out of nowhere, sticking out from under leaves or next to logs that have been overlooked. There is strong “insider” knowledge shared by the hunters about popular hunting practices, where to look, and how to respect the rights of other hunters. Many people, including locals, who are not mushroom hunters do not realize just how important the tradition of mushroom hunting is in Estill County. Since many people have limited knowledge about mushroom hunting, they often come to the Mountain Mushroom Festival expecting to buy and see mushrooms.

Mary Reed and I wanted to change the festival in order to help visitors learn about the cultural context and history of the tradition. Because little had been done in the way of documenting the folklife and culture of these hunters, much of this knowledge was unknown to me.  Therefore, when the Kentucky Folklife Program, then a division of the Kentucky Arts Council, offered a Community Scholars training workshop in our area, Mary Reed and I decided it was time to become researchers interested in the folk art of mushroom hunting.

The Community Scholars classes were designed to teach residents how to identify, document, present, and conserve the diverse traditional and cultural heritage of the area. The classes moved around the state and were hosted by local community groups. In 2003, the program worked with the Estill Arts Council to present six classes. Mary and I signed up for the training. We learned a lot about the nature of folklife in Kentucky and the ways that trained folklorists document their work. The sessions were customized to address the types of folk traditions specific to our region. During the training, we learned how to write field notes, develop exhibits and signage, and present narrative stages. Ultimately, we developed a plan for conducting ethnographies relating to hunting events and for interviewing nearby shroomers. With the help of our instructors and other students in the class, we began our research.

After graduation from the program, we proudly began referring to ourselves as community scholars; however, we wanted to get the mushroom hunters involved in the fieldwork and interpretation of their cultural tradition. We felt that the mushroom hunters were important because they were the “cultural experts,” a valuable resource that had not been utilized effectively. Mushroom hunters have a wealth of knowledge, often passed from generation to generation, from years of hunting mushrooms. Documenting this information would build public awareness and appreciation of mushroom hunting by offering insiders’ perspectives.

Mushroom hunters were identified, interviewed, and photographed. We accompanied them on hunting trips and captured their stories. They shared the ins-and-outs of mushroom hunting, including where to hunt (secret spots), when to hunt (optimal weather conditions), how to hunt (pinch off at base of mushroom), how to prepare mushrooms for cooking (soaking in salt water), how to cook them (frying), and how to preserve them (freezing or drying).

With all of the information gathered during our research, we knew that such valuable insight had to be conserved and presented. We experimented with different methods for presenting the mushroom hunting tradition. We secured a tent called the Mushroom Market, along with stages, tables, and chairs. We produced interpretive signage with photos of hunters looking for mushrooms, morels on the ground before being picked, hunters putting mushrooms into the bag, weighing and measuring the mushrooms, and preparing to cook the morels. The signs were set up outside and inside the tent to help orient visitors as to what they were seeing. The tent was manned by mushroom hunters who volunteered their time to talk with visitors, demonstrated how to measure and weigh the mushrooms, and relayed their own personal experiences.

Along with the demonstrations in the tent, we added a narrative stage where mushroom hunters were interviewed by a folklorist or community scholar. The audience asked questions, and many great stories were shared. Over time, this narrative stage has also become a foodways stage, equipped with an overhead mirror to help the audience see cooking demonstrations with different varieties of mushrooms.

Some wonderful interactions have taken place on the stage. I remember once, when folklorist Bob Gates was a guest moderator on the foodways stage, he succeeded in getting one family to tell how they found the particular mushrooms they were cooking on the stage. When Bob jokingly suggested that he would love to go mushroom hunting, they quickly invited him to go up in the hills right after the session was done. He and his wife Janet had the time of their lives walking around in the woods with this family, learning the folk belief that “no one will find a mushroom until the grandmother of the family finds the first one.” That is exactly how it happened. Once she found the first one, Bob looked down at his feet and found one looking up at him.

We wish everyone could have this kind of experience, but when you are doing a festival for thousands of people you need to find other ways to tell these stories. We do that with exhibits, one of which is a large terrarium container holding elusive morels hidden in a habitat similar to woodlands. We also set up the Mushroom Market where shroomers can bring mushrooms, such as morels, shiitakes, and oysters, to sell at a set price per pound. Availability depends on the amount that local hunters bring to the Market tent. A popular addition to the Market is the Mushroom Hunting Contest, honoring who found the largest mushroom and who collected the most in pounds.

We are glad to have developed a real relationship with shroomers in an attempt to present their recreational and occupational folklife. We try hard to practice ethnographic reciprocity by sharing our research with them and involving them in the interpretation and presentation of their traditions. A shroomer serves as the chairman of the Mushroom Market and Mushroom Hunting Contest and serves on the Mountain Mushroom Festival committee. Shroomers take great pride as volunteers promoting their community.

We have found that other festivals and the general public are interested in our success. We have presented our folk artists at the Kentucky Folklife Festival, the Kentucky Artisan Center in Berea, the local Historical Society’s museum, school Heritage Days, and the public library. 

After conducting a community assessment of our county, we decided to devote research to another folk art. Right under our noses was the long-standing tradition of hunting for Kentucky agate, the state rock, in the creeks of Estill County. This rare stone is only found in a few other counties within the state, and Estill County has the largest variety of agates in the world. These agate hunters enjoy being out in nature, wading in the creeks, and searching their secret spots in hopes of finding the rare red agate. Now, the tradition has been added to the Mountain Mushroom Festival through the Kentucky Agate Hunts and a Kentucky Agate, Gem, Mineral, & Fossil Show.

We have not done this alone. We have continued to seek help for presenting local traditions at the Mushroom Festival. The Estill County Arts Council, whose mission is to enrich the quality of life for area residents, has been a strong supporter of our work. We have continued to grow by seeking advice from the Kentucky Folklife Program and the Kentucky Arts Council, who we have called upon for consultation and help in developing and presenting the narrative and foodways stages.

We have learned that the Appalachian folklife traditions of morel hunting and Kentucky agate hunting in Estill County are important to the community. Now that they have been identified, documented, presented, and conserved, we feel that our work has built public awareness and appreciation of morel mushroom hunting. Kentucky Educational Television has recognized the tradition of morel hunting on a “Kentucky Life” program and Tim Farmer’s “Country Kitchen” program. Kentucky Monthly and Kentucky Living magazines, as well as regional newspapers, have presented stories about the traditions of mushroom and agate hunting that have spread the word within the local community and across the region. This continues to educate people about local cultural traditions and reach new audiences.

We are happy with the journey of the 30 years of the Mountain Mushroom Festival, and the inclusion of folklife and local traditions has been a positive means to promote the unique cultural heritage of specific folk groups. We would recommend this approach to any community!

Francine Bonny, a native of Hardin County, Kentucky, graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1973 with a BS in Textiles, Clothing, and Merchandising and in 1986 with an MS in Home Economics Education. She was employed by the University of Kentucky for 12 years as a Home Economics Extension Agent in Johnson and Jessamine Counties. In 1985, she became a resident of Estill County when she married Tom Bonny from Irvine. She believes in the value of volunteering and serving others in the community and participates in several community organizations, including 30 years on the Mountain Mushroom Festival committee, of which she has been Chairman for 20 years.