Other central Illinois towns may fancy themselves the “capital” of this, that or the other thing, but none would dare claim Pumpkin Capital of the World. That esteemed title was officially bestowed upon Morton, Illinois, in 1978.
The growing, processing and canning of pumpkins started in and around Morton decades ago. Today, village officials say 85 percent of the world’s canned pumpkin is processed and packed at the Libby’s factory just off I-74.
In 1967, the local penchant for pumpkins spawned the Morton Pumpkin Festival (Sept. 14-17, 2022), now one of the region’s largest, most popular annual fests. Hundreds of volunteers pitch in to welcome 75,000-plus visitors for carnival rides, live music, a huge parade, and pumpkin treats from pancakes and ice cream to chili and donuts.
Oh, and thanks to State Rep. Keith Sommer of Morton, pumpkin pie is the official State Pie of Illinois.
So yes, the Pumpkin Capital title is legit. But a healthy obsession with the orangish squash is just one facet of this village of 17,000-plus residents.
Leigh Ann Brown, CEO and executive director of the Morton Chamber of Commerce, describes Morton as “a community of supportive and engaged people dedicated to providing and generating opportunities.”
Those opportunities are visible all over town.
Progress Beyond Pumpkins
In multiple categories, Morton is a central Illinois powerhouse that often defies economic trends. Take sales tax revenues during the pandemic. While most expected a drop in 2020, Morton experienced an increase of $10,000 over 2019. If that wasn’t enough, it jumped again by $411,000 in 2021 – and in a town with one of the lowest sales tax rates in the region.
“I just find that astounding,” said Mayor Jeff Kaufman. “It shows just how people responded and kept our Morton businesses in business.”
A lifelong resident — he calls himself a “1957 classic” — Kaufman likes to point out that, while businesses and people in other parts of Illinois are leaving, they’re moving to Morton. The U. S. Census Bureau recorded a 5.2% population bump from 2010 to 2020.
There is growth in other areas. Precision Planting (a division of AGCO) has extensive manufacturing and distribution locations throughout Morton. The precision ag technology company — some call it “the hot rod shop of ag” — recently announced it will be doubling its presence with a new 500,000-square-foot facility on the community’s west side. Construction is to begin yet this summer, with a November 2023 completion.
Why Stay In Morton?
“Central Illinois is a great place to recruit talent due to the proximity of universities and a lower cost of living,” said Lee Baldwin, director of core autonomy at AutonomouStuff, a brand of Hexagon’s Autonomy & Positioning division. “Our local team can access a global workforce of 22,000 from right here in Morton.”
The company has attracted international attention with innovations in autonomous vehicle technology.
For Precision Planting, it doesn’t hurt that Morton is smack dab in the middle of farm country.
“We’re choosing to stay in Morton because of the proximity to our headquarters and access to the interstate,” said Director of Finance Keith Crow. “We look forward to growing our presence as an employer of choice in the area.”
Morton sits at the interchange of east-west I-74 and southbound I-155, so transportation plays a major role in growing and keeping business.
“One stoplight and you’re on the freeway,” Kaufman said. Add the lowest-in-the-region property tax rate, modern and well-maintained utilities and access to a skilled workforce, and you have a recipe for success.
Amidst this growth, Caterpillar’s Parts Distribution Center continues to be Morton’s top employer, with 2,200 jobs at the sprawling complex along I-74.
Roots In Planting And Pottery
Morton’s roots are in agriculture, but early in its history it also became a hub of industry out of necessity. The manufacture of drainage tile locally allowed thousands of acres of swamp prairie in the region to be farmed.
Field tiles eventually gave way to a succession of pottery works whose kilns cranked out all manner of housewares and decorative items for decades. That industry is long gone, but its heritage can be seen in an extensive collection of Morton pottery at the Morton Public Library. Morton High School sports teams are the Potters.
Meanwhile, the village is seeing an apartment building boom, with nearly 100 new units constructed in the past two years.
It “has just been insane,” said Lori Mattiazza, leasing manager for Ethos Design Build, regarding the firm’s construction of more than 250 luxury units locally. Young families, downsizing retirees and remote workers are leasing them as soon as they’re finished.
The overall housing market is tight. Kauffman said there are typically only five to 10 homes for sale at any given time, “the lowest number in years.” A new subdivision on the east side of town is filling up fast.
Folks are moving to Morton for favorable taxes, quick commutes (or working right in town) and plentiful lifestyle amenities such as parks, unique shopping and dining experiences, safe neighborhoods and accessible transportation.
Meanwhile, Mortonites are proud of their schools. In a 2020 ranking, District 709 schools were in the state’s top 10 percent. Enrollment was 3,069 in 2021, up from 2,911 in 2015.
“Top to bottom, we have excellence throughout this community, not just in the schools,” said District 709 Superintendent Craig Smock. “We have a great deal of respect for parents’ authority and local control, which I believe sets us apart.”
Meanwhile, the district emphasizes “looking at students as individuals and lifting them up to their highest potential,” added Smock. It shows in high test scores, area-leading graduation rates and other metrics.
A Small Town Vibe
Amidst all of the change, Morton maintains a friendly, small-town feel that shows up in places like an extensive and well-funded park district, a modern public library and busy downtown business district. Locals and visitors enjoy boutique shops offering gifts, clothing, wedding dresses, home interiors, gourmet popcorn, books and more.
While fast-food franchises reign at the I-74 interchange, homegrown dining experiences are scattered around town. They run the gambit from smoked meats, sushi, tenderloins and pizza to pub fare, scones, ice cream, coffee, craft beer, whiskey, baked goods, sweet treats and exotic delicacies such as pan-roasted pheasant.
Brown pointed to “a variety of outdoor spaces to experience and connect with family and friends” as a community asset. A prime example is Memorial Plaza in central Morton. Built through a public/private partnership, the space salutes veterans and is an outdoor gathering place for all ages.
The Morton Fine Arts Association helps keep the arts alive throughout the year with a series of free summer concerts at the Idlewood Arts Pavilion and ticketed performances in the fall/winter at the Bertha Frank Performing Arts Center.
From April to August, Fourth Fridays bring musicians, artists, food vendors and others out on the sidewalks, with downtown merchants keeping their doors open late. Church Square on Jefferson Street is home to a bustling farmer’s market on Tuesdays during the summer.
Morton is a giving community. Morton Community Foundation Executive Director Scott Witzig said the foundation strives to have “the greatest impact on the most people” and has awarded more than $5 million in community grants and scholarships since 2003. Significant donors are recognized in the 700 leaves on the foundation’s 21-foot stainless steel Giving Tree sculpture at the corner of Jefferson and First.
Growth, prosperity and hometown charm are all on the menu in Morton. And for dessert, you won’t go wrong with a big slice of pumpkin pie.