Bananas grow in tropical climates, and no part of Kentucky fits that description. So why is Fulton, a small town on the border with Tennessee, home to an annual banana festival?
“Fulton was called the banana capital of the world because about 70 percent, sometimes as high as 90 percent of all the bananas coming out of South America came through Fulton and South Fulton,” says Fred Fahl, a lifelong resident of Fulton.
The towns of Fulton, Kentucky, and South Fulton, Tennessee (locally known as the Twin Cities) developed along the Illinois Central Railroad, which ran a freight line between New Orleans and Chicago.
“Bananas grown in South America would be loaded on boats, brought to the port of New Orleans where they would be cross-loaded on to trains,” says Jeff Campbell, a sixth-generation Fultonian. “They would be iced down in New Orleans in the warm months to keep the fruit at 58 degrees. They would travel as far north [as they could go] before the temperature started to rise and they had to stop in Fulton. And Fulton constructed one of the largest ice plants in the world, and so these 100-car banana trains were constantly coming through Fulton and being re-iced before continuing on to Chicago.”
Fulton’s banana festival started in 1962 and continues as a beloved tradition today. Activities include pageants, banana bake-offs, contests, and parades.
“I think what gets most people excited is the grand parade,” says Christie Rogers, a seventh-generation Fultonian. “I think the greatest thing is the excitement is building up for the very end when they have the one-ton banana pudding. It does take several hours to make. Usually we’ll have about 30 to 50 people that will help volunteer to put it together.”
Volunteers make the pudding the day before the festival, and it’s kept frozen until right before parade time. It makes its way through the parade route and back through downtown where festival activities take place. Residents and visitors can then come and get a serving of the town tradition.
Fulton’s one-ton banana pudding earned a long-standing world record, but one that was challenged in 1987.
“In 1987, in Ontario, Canada, somebody decided they were going to take the record away from Fulton,” says Fahl. “And they made one, and they made it in a hot tub.”
The chairman of the festival that year wouldn’t let the record slip away from Fulton for long.
“They made a two-ton banana pudding that one year,” says Fahl. “[The chairman] said, ‘I don’t know about you folks, but we’re going to eat ours. I don’t know if they’re going to eat theirs. I don’t know who would want to eat something out of a hot tub.’ So anyway, we got it back, and then they went back to one-ton banana puddings because that’s a lot of pudding to serve people.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life #2408 which originally aired on February 2, 2019. Watch the full episode here.