What was once a soldier’s meager meal became a tradition, and that tradition has since become a celebration now known as the McClure Bean Soup Festival and Fair. Going on its 122nd year, the festival originated soon after the Civil War through the efforts of several McClure veterans. Since then, the bean soup and the festivities that surround it have been offered to the public as a way to honor all veterans of all wars.
The festival, held this year from Sept. 7-14 in McClure, Snyder County, Pa., officially became a fair in 2008 and has branched out from the original setup to include a variety of musical entertainers, rides, contests and events, similar to any other fair. But the bean soup, served daily at noon at the Bean Soup Pavilion for $3.50 a bowl, offers an aromatic memory of what once was.
As the story goes, several Civil War veterans gathered together on July 23, 1883, at the Joseph Peters Blacksmith Shop in Bannerville, Pa. Their objective was to establish a Grand Army of the Republic Post. On Oct. 20 of that same year, their goal was realized and they began holding meetings. The bean soup they served at the meetings eventually became synonymous with their time together, so much so that in 1891 they invited the public to enjoy a bean soup dinner served with real hardtack — a type of very hard cracker carried by soldiers. Comrade Ner B. Middleswarth was chairman of the event, while Comrade Henry Kahley and Comrade Aaron Bickel prepared the soup. (Members of the Posts were referred to as Comrades.)
Since that time, the bean soup recipe and the method used to make it changed very little. Initially, the original recipe called for 20 pounds of beef, a large bucketful of beans, and water. These ingredients were combined and cooked for about 3 hours and no additional spices or herbs were added. As the recipe developed, equal parts beef and beans were used.
The current recipe calls for beef and Great Northern beans, as well as oyster crackers that are served with the soup instead of hardtack. The ground beef, suet and water used are from local sources.
Sandra Fisher is the president of the fair and continues to enjoy the traditions it offers.
“The McClure bean soup has been a part of my life since I was young,” Fisher said. She estimates that 48 kettles of soup, at 150 bowls per kettle, were sold in 2012. That’s an astounding 7,200 bowls of soup, and with that many bowls being sold comes the help that makes it happen.
Volunteers are critical to the fair’s operations. Cindy Tyson is the current head cook and has been for 20 years, the same as her mother, Shirly, who held the position for 20 years before her. Nothing but 16 large 35-gallon kettles over wood fire furnaces will suffice for this massive job. Those who cook the soup stir two kettles at a time for 140-minute shifts. Fisher estimates that there are 70-80 volunteers, including fair officers and committee members, that contribute their time and resources during the fair and throughout the year.
Other than eating soup, visitors of the fair can watch fireworks, enjoy a reenactment of the Civil War and participate in games such as the egg toss and corn-shelling competitions.
“Tradition and the homecoming aspect” are what make the fair a memorable experience, Fisher said. Fisher enjoys participating in the pumpkin decorating contest and educating others about agriculture. Her husband is a farmer and he competes along with their daughter to see “how many blue ribbons they can bring home,” Fisher said. She hopes the fair will attract as many fairgoers as last year — 60,000 — or maybe more.
Admission and entertainment are free, but there is a $4 fee for parking that is shared with a local volunteer fire company, Bannerville Fire Co., and the M.A.C.C., an athletic center.
For more information, visit mcclurebeansoupfair.com or call 717-543-5584. At the fair, visit the souvenir stand to learn more.<\c> LF20130831_McClureBeanSoupFair:
Photos by Michelle Boney
Fair volunteers take 140-minute shifts to stir the bean soup at the McClure Bean Soup Festival and Fair in McClure, Snyder County, Pa., named after a Civil War tradition.
Standing is the mini halter class winner of the 2012 horse show at the McClure Bean Soup Festival and Fair.
In a reenacted scene, an actor playing a Civil War surgeon performs “surgery” on a patient to demonstrate medical practices during the war.
Joey Benner takes part in therapeutic horseback-riding classes offered during the fair.
Kids scramble to win the corn-shelling game.
Civil War re-enactors demonstrate how to fire a cannon at a Civil War camp reenactment set up at the McClure Bean Soup Festival and Fair in Snyder County, Pa., which teaches visitors about the history of the fair and the famous bean soup. Reenactors of the 147th P.V.I. Co. G Living History Unit and Cooper’s Battery B participate in the fair.
Winners of the 2012 McClure Bean Soup Festival and Fair pageant are, from left, Pageant Queen Kristijana Seler, Pageant Princess Brooke Aucker, Little Miss Jaylynn Blair and Teeny Bean Mekenna Franquet.
A competitor in the egg toss expresses surprise after cracking her egg.