When the sweet corn has reached its optimal maturity, when the kernels are full and juicy, the members of Hopewell Presbyterian Church know it’s time.
The picking starts at 7 a.m. on the outskirts of Franklin, when volunteers from the church meet on the farm of Bill and Annie Leser. Moving through an acre of corn, they’ve mastered the quick tug-and-pull method to pick individual ears off the stalks.
“A bunch of us sit around a tree and shuck it, and then it gets served,” church paster Brad Moger said. “It’s a massive volunteer effort.”
Today and Saturday, about 12,000 ears of corn will be picked, shucked, boiled, slathered in butter and greedily eaten in one of the county’s most cherished summer events.
For the 56th year, the Hopewell Presbyterian Church community will pull together throughout the course of a weekend for their annual corn roast.
Nearly every member will take part in some way, from shucking corn to making coleslaw to clearing tables. The event is the church’s only annual fundraiser. The money supports outreach efforts throughout the community.
But more than the good deeds that the corn roast helps fund is the sense of history and community that pervades every aspect of the two-night extravaganza.
“It is the greatest time of church family fellowship. We’re there every Sunday to sit in the pews and listen to the sermon, but for the weekend of the corn roast, we live together,” said Ron Kelsay, a former chairman of the corn roast and lifelong member of the church. “It shows you the spirit of the church family.”
The longevity of the corn roast is a point of pride for the congregation and their country church, which has history dating back to the 1830s.
“The fact that this congregation goes back as far as it does, the names that you see in the cemetery are the same families who are in the pews now,” said Pat Stevens, chairwoman of this year’s event.
What makes the event special is the effort that dozens of church members put into making it a success.
People give up their time to pick and shuck the corn, to help roast it in boiling water in huge metal pots and to serve it from a cart traveling among tables of hungry patrons.
Some volunteers are needed to sell uncooked corn from the roadside. Others scoop coleslaw, beans, shaved ham and other food served along with the corn. Members contribute scores of homemade baked pies and baked goods.
“It’s a group effort that’s really fun. It’s a great story of Johnson County and the community,” Moger said.
It takes at least 50 people to pull the event off, with well more than 100 people taking part some years.
“Anyone who has ever worked it realizes how important it is that everybody is a part of it, even if it’s just for an hour,” Kelsay said.
The corn roast was started in 1959, when Josephine and James “Cotton” Bridwell attended a similar event at a fraternal organization in northern Indiana. The goal was to raise money to construct a wing for Sunday school classes at the Hopewell church.
Not knowing what to expect, church officials planned the roast and opened the doors. More than 200 people showed up to eat, many more than they were expecting.
So the next year, the event expanded to two nights, which it has remained ever since.
On average, the corn roast attracts nearly 1,000 people each night. Funds raised at the roast go into the church’s general operating account, with the intention to have enough money to help organizations such as the Interchurch Food Pantry and KIC-IT.
“It’s profitable enough that we don’t have to do anything else,” Kelsay said.
The entire effort starts at the farm of Bill and Annie Leser. Longtime Hopewell members, they have provided the corn for the roast for about 40 years.
Bill Leser plants 1.5 acres of Ambrosia bicolor sweet corn. One acre is picked and goes to the corn roast. The other is donated to the Interchurch Food Pantry to help needy families. He also grows 36 heads of cabbage, which are shredded to make the slaw.
“There’s a lot of stress involved in that. It’s one thing to have a garden; it’s another thing to grow the corn for your church’s only fundraiser,” Kelsay said. “You’re responsible for all of that.”
Two pickup trucks are needed to bring the corn to the church each morning. One truck pulls up to the kitchen, where it’s prepared for the roast. The other is parked by the road, for people who just haven’t eaten enough and want to take some home with them.
On average, each attendee eats about three ears of corn at the roast, Kelsay said. The record is 26 ears eaten.
After having an accident in his barn earlier this month, Bill Leser is unable to help with the harvesting, shucking and other responsibilities of getting the corn ready. Volunteers have rallied to fill the large void he leaves, but it will be impossible to fully re-create his contributions, Kelsay said.
“He’s the king of the corn roast. So for this to go on without him is kind of a sad thing,” he said. “But where we’ll miss him the most is on Sunday morning. He lights the candles every Sunday before the service starts, and it’s a really special thing.”
Since organizers can’t know for sure when the corn will be ripe and ready to eat, they often only have two or three weeks to announce the roast, plan all of the details and order the supplies.
“We don’t know how it’s going to happen, which is both good and exciting and very frustrating,” Stevens said. “People start calling the church in May, trying to find when the roast is going to be. We don’t know. We plan to have it at the end of July, but we just have to be prepared.”
The nature of the corn roast means that it is susceptible to the unpredictable Indiana weather. Heavy rains, droughts and extreme heat have at times wreaked havoc on the planning.
But that hasn’t stopped organizers from doing everything in their power to ensure it carries on. Only twice — in 1988 and 2002 — has the roast been canceled.
During the extreme drought of 2012, the heat prevented corn from developing throughout Indiana. So Bill Leser and a pair of other local farmers, Mark and Scott Henderson, drove semitrailer-trucks to Lafayette to buy corn for the roast.
“It’s one of those things where whatever it takes, it’s going to get done,” Kelsay said.
At last summer’s roast, organizers realized they were going to run out of corn with 30 minutes remaining to seat people. They take great pride in ensuring everyone who comes to the event gets everything they want to eat, Kelsay said.
So they had to scramble for a solution. They ran to the roadside stand selling raw corn, and everyone available gathered all of the ears they could, shucked them and brought the corn back to cook.
Once again, no one walked away from the roast unfulfilled, Kelsay said.
“It’s an amazing team effort,” Stevens said.
1959 — year of the first Hopewell Presbyterian Church corn roast
2 — Times the corn roast has been canceled
12,000 — Ears of corn that will be picked for the roast
2,000 — Estimated attendance for the two nights
400 — Pounds of shaved ham for sandwiches
24 — Cases of tomatoes to garnish the sandwiches
100 — Pounds of onions to garnish the sandwiches
260 — Homemade pies and baked goods for both nights
What: Hopewell Presbyterian Church corn roast
When: 4:30 to 8 p.m. today and Saturday
Where: 548 W. County Road 100N, Franklin
What: Roasted corn, shaved ham sandwiches, baked beans, green beans, coleslaw, baked goods and beverages.
Cost: $10 for adults, $5 for children, kids 5 and under free