Members of the Brentwood Chamber of Commerce met at the restaurant in 1991 in an attempt to devise a way to merge the city’s two major celebrations – the Harvest Festival and the Art and Wine Festival. The Harvest Festival was held at the height of August’s triple-digit temperatures. The Art and Wine Festival, held in the spring, had a tendency to be rained out.
The planners initially considered holding a Tomato Festival. When the concept of a Corn Festival was brought up, Chantelle Leighton, daughter of then-chamber member Kathy Leighton, flashed her graphic design skills on the spot. She grabbed a napkin and sketched out what would become the mascot of the Brentwood CornFest – Happy Corn.
Board member Harry Green was sitting next to Chantelle and liked what he saw. Soon, the other chamber members realized that a festival celebrating the popular summer vegetable was just what Brentwood needed.
“Everybody thought (Happy Corn) was so cute, so we decided: let’s go with a corn festival,” Kathy Leighton said. The idea stuck, and in July of 1992, the city held its first CornFest, a tradition that over the years has grown in attendance from 5,000 to more than 40,000.
The CornFest has evolved into not only a fun-filled summer spectacle, but a boon to the city and its chamber. “It has turned into a wonderful draw from the surrounding cities and the whole Bay Area,” Brentwood Mayor Bob Taylor said. “It’s a wonderful accolade for the city. It’s been phenomenal. Each year, I marvel at how much it’s grown and the people that flock to see it.”
B.C. – Before Corn
Brentwood’s first festival didn’t involve a vegetable at all. The Diablo Valley Apricot Festival started in 1926, held in Antioch to coincide with the Antioch Bridge opening. Brentwood didn’t host the festival until 1928, when the Apricot Festival – sponsored by the East Contra Costa County Chamber of Commerce – came to Brentwood Park after a year in Oakley.
As the story goes in Leighton’s East County historical book “Footprints in the Sand,” a train was chartered from Richmond to bring people from all over the Bay Area to the Apricot Festival. The event also celebrated the planting of Brentwood’s first apricots.
“They were a huge, new commodity in the area,” Leighton said.
Leighton’s book recalls the Liberty High School Band marching into Brentwood Park, escorting the Apricot Queen. The festival soon took on a carnival atmosphere. By the mid-1930s, the Apricot Festival became one of the top summer events in Northern California.
But the Apricot Festival came to a screeching halt in 1936. Ray Wallace, 44, a major festival volunteer and son of prominent Contra Costa County Judge Robert Wallace, was beaten and killed during the festival outside the Masonic Hall (now Cap’s Restaurant) by a man from Pittsburg.
Brentwood’s Chamber of Commerce withdrew its sponsorship for the following year’s event. According to Leighton’s book, the festival’s committee members claimed that opposition from local growers was the main reason it pulled out, but the fact was: the Apricot Festival had begun to get out of hand.
It wasn’t until 1953 that Brentwood hosted another summer festival. That year, the Brentwood Lions Club drummed up the Carnique – a carnival/barbecue on the Fourth of July. Much like the Apricot Festival, it was an instant sensation, becoming one of the Lions’ biggest fundraisers.
The food booths, games, fireworks and other entertainment drew 3,000 to 4,000 visitors to Brentwood Park and raised about $5,000 annually.
“That was a huge deal in my childhood and (for) most of the people we see as baby boomers today,” Leighton said. “It was like a real homecoming. All the people who lived out of town would come.”
But after a while, Leighton said, the driving forces behind the Carnique had retired or moved on, and the festival lost steam, ending in 1977.
Three years later, the Chamber of Commerce commissioned two events – the Art and Wine Festival in the spring and the Harvest Festival in mid summer.
They were popular, but in the 1990s, attendance for both began to wilt. Harvest Festival temperatures climbed into triple digits and rain drowned the Art and Wine Festival (which added jazz and was later moved to August). The chamber brainstormed ways to combine the two events into one enjoyable, waterproof celebration – leading to what we know today as the CornFest.
The inaugural CornFest
After that fateful meeting at the Brentwood Café, organizers began working to make the CornFest a success. Leighton served as event co-chair with U’geni Murdoch.
The goal was to make the CornFest a party honoring not only maize, but the city of Brentwood.
“We saw the CornFest as a celebration of Brentwood,” Leighton said. “The idea was to keep it affordable for the townspeople. There were no fences; there was no charge to get in.”
The CornFest raised money through sponsors, for $100 apiece, and relied on its local organizations for food service. Cub Scouts hawked hot dogs and the Lions Club sold suds, Leighton remembers.
The 1992 CornFest featured the first sight of Byron Bonnickson’s alter ego – Kernel Corn. Bonnickson, a dedicated volunteer and member of one of Brentwood’s first families, dressed up like an ear of corn, attracting lots of attention. In the early going of the CornFest, Kernel Corn became the event’s unofficial mascot.
Organizers printed up coloring books for the kids and a cookbook filled with corn-based recipes. One of the inaugural CornFest’s main draws was a demonstration by chefs from the San Francisco Culinary Academy. The events also featured several contests – cooking, photography and writing, to name a few. Chantelle, Leighton’s daughter, was named the first Corn Silk Queen.
“It was great fun,” Leighton said of the first CornFest. “It was a real commitment. We really worked.”
All in all, the initial CornFest was a popping success, bringing roughly 5,000 revelers to Brentwood and setting the foundation for a major annual attraction.
Growth of the CornFest
Ken Seamann has held various titles over his 15-year involvement with the festival. He’s seen the fest evolve from a small celebration to a major draw. Over the past few years, Seamann, the 2011 CornFest Co-chair, has been in charge of the entertainment largely responsible for making the CornFest a Bay Area hit.
As attendance grew throughout the ’90s, organizers felt it was time to enhance the quality of entertainment gracing CornFest stages. Since 1998, the event has played host to Eddie Money, Starship and Dave Mason, among other marquee names.
“It really made a major step when we went to major entertainment,” Seamann said. “We stepped up the entertainment, it brought in more people, which made it more profitable.”
But making the festival profitable became difficult as the economic recession hit. In 2009, the CornFest contributed more than $65,000 to local charities. The 2010 CornFest brought in roughly $130,000 less than the previous year, turning the cupboard bare for Brentwood’s nonprofits. Organizers cited the recession, as well as uncertainty over the location of that festival as reasons for the decline. (Civic Center construction moved the event’s site from Second to First Street.)
But although the minor event born of a napkin has grown into an extravaganza, organizers still want to make sure the history of both the CornFest and Brentwood is recognized and honored this weekend. Prominantly displayed will be exhibits from the East Contra Costa Historical Society and Museum.
“We want the community,” Chamber of Commerce member Madeline Krebs said, “to get a feel for yesterday here in Brentwood.”