If she is the Queen of Rhubarb, Darlene Johnson’s castle is her pink kitchen.
That's where Johnson, who turns 87 next week, is especially busy during the days before the mega rhubarb-themed festival she founded 26 years ago.
And that’s where Johnson cuts me a piece of a rhubarb raisin bar a few minutes after I walk into her Aledo home on a recent afternoon. There’s also rhubarb pie warming on the stove that she plans to drop off at a friend’s house after I leave.
“I thought I should look like the rhubarb lady,” Johnson said, wearing her bright pink Rhubarb Festival T-shirt.
She has the walk-- and talk -- down.
Sitting at her kitchen table, Johnson sounds off -- from memory -- the schedule for the 26th annual Aledo Rhubarb Festival, set for Friday and Saturday.
“It’s mind boggling to think of how it’s grown,” Johnson, who retired from her post as chair of the festival committee last year, said. “We can't go anywhere without people saying, ‘Oh that's where the rhubarb festival is.’”
In recent years, the festival and its featured rhubarb pies have attracted more than 10,000 people over two days to the town of 3,600 people.
Residents such as Pam Ricke, a longtime festival volunteer, say the event has put Aledo, now officially known as the Rhubarb Capital of Illinois, on the map.
“There are people from far and wide that automatically associate Aledo with the rhubarb and the festival,” she said.
That’s not news to Johnson. Last year, 4,000 pies were sold over two days. People from 27 states attended. Some visitors plan family reunions and vacations around the festival.
“I don't know how many times I've heard that statement... that rhubarb and Darlene have put this small town on the map,” Johnson said.
‘How it all began’
Johnson never thought they would sell 1,000 pies.
She’s been surprised by the “power of rhubarb” a few times.
During the first year of the festival, then held on the front lawn of Johnson’s house and gift shop, she didn't think it would see its fifth anniversary.
When I ask about those early times, Johnson points me to one of the papers on her table, titled “How It All Began.”
“I've told the story so many times,” she said. “So, I just typed it up for people.”
The story goes like this: Johnson and her cousin opened a craft store in Aledo and were looking for a way to advertise. In 1990, they held a rhubarb tasting that offered 13 dishes. About 67 people showed up.
“It just kept doubling and doubling each year,” she said. “In 2000, we moved it downtown and it just took off from there.”
Over the years, more and more residents helped out by growing rhubarb patches and lending their plants to the festival staff. Now, there are several specific rhubarb plots -- some that grow 150 patches at a time -- around town from April to June.
“Pretty soon, everyone got to planting rhubarb,” she said. “It's just grown like wildfire.”
It has paid off. Ricke says about $30,000 is typically raised per year from the bake sale.
“For our local economy, it helps area businesses so much and it helps our nonprofit organizations who sell things at the bake sales," she said.
For example, First Baptist Church of Aledo, where Ricke and her family attend, sell pie by the slice to raise money for the church youth group’s summer mission trip.
“It has had a huge impact on our community,” Ricke said. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
‘The oddity of it’
As Johnson flips through a cookbook created by festival volunteers, titled “From the Rhubarb Patch,” -- copies will be on sale for $10 this weekend -- she tells me about some of the 114 recipes inside.
The festival bake sale has offered rhubarb wine, jam, tarts, bars, cookies, lemonade, ice cream, barbecue sauce and a rhubarb slush that tastes like iced tea.
Johnson has made most of those items -- yes, even the wine -- in her kitchen.
Johnson, who grew up as one of eight children on a farm in Mercer County, has her mother to thank for her love of cooking.
“I’ve always loved baking because I love sweets,” she said. “Once or twice a day, I have to have a cup of coffee and a dessert.”
Her dessert flavor of choice -- even more than chocolate -- is rhubarb.
“That's what we grew up with,” Johnson, who has a small garden of just lilies and strawberries, said. “It satisfies you as a dessert even though it's not sugary sweet.”
Is that what draws so many visitors to Aledo for the first weekend in June?
“That’s part of it,” Johnson said. “It’s the oddity of it. Rhubarb is unusual and people are intrigued by that.”
Other well-attended events -- such as the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California and the Horseradish Festival in Collinsville, Illinois -- back up her theory.
“There are a lot of watermelon festivals,” Ricke said. “This one is unique. People either love or hate rhubarb.”
If they are rhubarb-lovers, festival-goers show up from hours away.
“It’s because you can only get it at a certain time and not everyone knows how to get it or cook it or what rhubarb is even,” Ricke said. “They’re made with something that has to be grown and chopped and cooked. It’s not like bringing a pan of brownies. It takes time.”
The love is so serious that volunteers coined the phrase “rhubarb regret,” which sets in for many late-comers when the pies run out at about 1 p.m. each year.
“By noon, you’re pushing your luck,” Ricke said. “There’s only so many of us who do the baking and so many people that come -- I always tell people to get here early.”
‘All about the feeling’
Even though she retired last year, Johnson’s phone rang a few times while we talked with people asking questions about the festival or offering up rhubarb.
“A lot of work goes into it and the brunt of it was mine,” Johnson said. “I worried that when I quit, ‘Is it going to last a year or two and then flop?’ But I don’t worry about that anymore. It’s in good hands.”
One of those is Ricke, who handles the marketing for the festival. She’s still impressed when a Facebook post about rhubarb gets 20 shares. This weekend, as an effort to keep the event fresh, Ricke has arranged for the Rhubarb Festival to have its own filter on Snapchat, an image-sharing smartphone app.
“People like coming out to the slower pace of our downtown,” she said. “The secret to the success is that it’s free and family-friendly and it’s well organized each year.”
“Nobody can say no to Darlene,” Ricke said. “She’s a special human being. She’s who I want to be when I grow up.”
Founding the festival has made Johnson famous in Aledo and beyond, she said.
“You’d be hard to find someone who doesn’t know her or love her,” she said. “That’s why we call her the Queen of Rhubarb.”
Before she was the Queen of Rhubarb, Johnson worked for her husband’s photography business and raised two kids. He died 26 years ago, so he never attended an Aledo Rhubarb Festival.
“It's been a long alone time,” Johnson said. “Him and my mom would've thought it was crazy with this festival. They would've said, ‘Darlene, what are you doing?’”
Johnson, however, doesn’t any doubts about what she’s done and what’s she doing for Aledo, the town she’s called home since high school.
“The festival is my big special thing,” she said. “There are no pay checks, but it’s about the feeling you get. The comments from people are so rewarding. It makes you feel like it was worth every minute you put in for 26 years.”