Thursday, April 17, 2008

At the Corner of Cucumber and Vine

If you’re a faithful public radio listener, you’ve probably heard the following announcement. I know I’ve heard it a hundred times:


Well, do you think that if I happened to be in the vicinity of Mount Olive, I would track down this well-known “corner of Cucumber and Vine” and try to bring you a photograph of it?

You bet your sweet pickles I would!

Rolling through Wayne County, I could get the mental image. I figured the Mount Olive Pickle Company would be out in the country, with cucumber fields stretching in every direction as far as the eye could see. I always thought the “Cucumber and Vine” thing was a little hokey. So I expected to drive into the Mount Olive Pickle Company parking lot and see some oversized, cartoon-ish street sign posted next to the front door.

Maybe somebody dressed up like a pickle would be there to greet visitors and hand out free samples. There’d probably be a Mount Olive Pickle Company Factory Outlet, where you take home caseloads of Mount Olive bread and butter pickles, Mount Olive tee shirts, Mount Olive coffee mugs, plastic serving-plates with the Mount Olive logo stamped on them, different sizes of pickle forks, EZ jar openers...

You know - really cool pickle essentials.

But it wasn’t like that at all. Here’s how it really happened:

I arrive at Mount Olive, quite the charming little town. And a busy place. For some reason, I feel like I'm driving back into 1963. Or 1947, for that matter. I mean that in a good way.

After I circle through the equally attractive Mount Olive College campus, I spot a road sign. “Mount Olive Pickle Company – Main Entrance” and it points to a narrow street. I follow the arrows and can see the famous street corner. With my camera ready, I head that way for a closer look.

There’s only one problem. The green signs don’t say “Cucumber” and “Vine”. They say “Chestnut” and “Witherington”. And what happened to the Mount Olive Pickle Company’s droll sense of humor I’d heard on the radio? The signs on the barbed wire chain link fence warn me, STOP / DO NOT ENTER / STOP. What a sour greeting!

Certain that backing my car around and snapping a picture constitutes a breach of some security threshold, I brace myself for the possibility of being pounced upon by a passel of pickle police…gherkin guards…cucumber cops…dilly detectives…the thin green line…or whatever it is they call their security force at the Mount Olive Pickle Company.

At that very moment, I hear the low, sonorous "HOOOOOT" of a steam whistle, yes, a GENUINE STEAM WHISTLE perched atop the pickle factory. It’s a beautiful sound. I look at my watch…12:53. This must be the whistle that tells all the pickle packers to "finish up lunch…you’ll need to start packing pickles again in seven minutes."

I catch a whiff of a pungent fragrance in the air. Vinegar! And I leave the factory parking lot, older but wiser. Down the street, I park next to the railroad tracks and walk along a block of little shops. Across the street, the pink azaleas explode around a dilapidated house.

I turn the corner and discover a library and an antiquarian bookstore. I amble in. Seeing the camera slung around my neck, the proprietor points me to the photography books, then he brings out some select editions:

-A fragile, century-old, folio-sized volume on the life of Washington Irving, profusely illustrated with photographs of the New York hills.

-And another book, filled with pictures taken on the streets of a French village from 1910 to 1940.

Finally, I have to ask, “Is there a Cucumber Street here in Mount Olive?”

Without missing a beat, he responds “Cucumber and Vine?”

“Right, right,” I chuckle, “as on public radio?”

“No, I really don’t think so.” He pulls out a map of Mount Olive and runs his finger over it as if to reassure me. “No Vine either.” Then he doubles checks both names against the map index, but they’re not on the index. He shakes his head, “no, no…” before hunching his shoulders, raising his palms and admitting, “…they just made it up.”

He tells me the annual Pickle Festival is coming up next weekend. Of course, I had already seen the banners. They were hanging from every lamppost.

“And so, what happens at the Pickle Festival?” Coming from a long line of Picklers, I realize I'm in the mecca of all things pickle.

"Oh, they park some antique tractors right out front here, and make a racket all day. They have a hot rod show there across the railroad tracks. People set up booths all over town selling crap. You know, fry bread, little shiny things, little pieces of wood.”

“Right, right,” I chuckle, “refrigerator magnets?”

“They want to bring in the tourists.”

“So,” I wonder aloud, “does Mount Olive GET a lot of tourists?” I'm not doing a very good job of hiding the disbelief in my voice.

My host rolls his eyes, pauses, and points a finger in my direction. “Youuuu…”

I chuckle again and explain that I’m in the business of investigating local legends…and debunking them whenever appropriate.

He goes on to tell me about one Wayne County community south of Mount Olive. “They call it BO-TANK-US. I’ve asked people how it got that name. Everybody has a different explanation.”

I can commiserate with his uncertainty, “Nobody really knows, eh?” I look around at the books one more time - admire a first edition Georgia O'Keefe collection priced at $325 - and get away without making a purchase, but I thank him for his time and for his research assistance. Reluctantly, I leave Mount Olive, North Carolina on the first secondary road that I cross. A couple of minutes later I see the roadsign pointing to “Beautancus Road.”

If I ever do return to Mount Olive, I can chip in my own theory on the origin of Beautancus. I’d opine that Beautancus was the region in France acclaimed for growing the very finest pickling cucumbers. And it was only natural, I would claim, that the early cucumber farmers south of Mount Olive would adopt that name for their own community here in the New World.

OK, so it’s not true. But it’s no more untrue than the repeated references to the “corner of Cucumber and Vine.”

One thing is for sure. If you want to visit the Pickle Capital of North Carolina, Mount Olive is the place to go...the rill dill.


Here's the official timeline from the Mount Olive Pickle Company. They claim there really is a Cucumber and Vine, but I'm not convinced. Not convinced at all.

I'll leave the final word to the Mountain Olive Pickle people.

"Yes, we really do make pickles at the Corner of Cucumber and Vine, in the town of Mount Olive, NC. Cucumber runs along the railroad tracks, and Vine intersects it at the company’s administrative offices. We pack over 90 million jars of processed and fresh packed pickles, peppers and relishes at that corner, which has been our home for almost 80 years."


Lynn Williams said...

The Corner of Cucumber & Vine really does exist - had you gone around the corner to the front gate you would have been able to drive onto our plant site, park at the Corner of Cucumber & Vine, and taken all the pictures you like of the street sign. Also at the Corner is the wooden tank around our flagpole where we stage the annual New Year's Eve Pickle Drop each year.

You can see a photo of the street sign and the wooden tank on our website, at this link:

Mt. Olive has used the address "Corner of Cucumber & Vine" for years. It became official in 1996, when the Mount Olive Town Board of Commissioners renamed the street blocks within the company's property to Cucumber and Vine.

Vine becomes Witherington Street, which you traveled down to our west gate. (We keep that gate closed for security reasons.) Witherington Street is named for I.F. Witherington, one of the original shareholders who also ran the company as secretary-treasurer from 1926 to 1955. Cucumber becomes North Center Street beyond our plant gates.

We regularly receive visitors at our gift shop, which is located at the Corner. The hours are 8-5 weekdays. And we had a few thousand here on New Year's Eve. The next time you visit Mt. Olive, give me a call and I'll be happy to show you around.

Lynn Williams
Community Relations
Mt. Olive Pickle Company, Inc.

GULAHIYI said...

Well, I’m in a pickle now, DOGGONE IT!!!! I don’t know which is worse…posting a story that’s a little bit shy of 100% accurate (that hardly ever - practically never - happens here)…or missing out on the chance to see the Cucumber and Vine sign AND visit the gift shop. I am heartsick to have been so close and yet so far (do you realize it’s 365 grueling miles from the front door of my house to the Mount Olive Pickle Company?).

The bright side of all this is that now I have more reason to return to Mount Olive. Seriously, it is a lovely little town…I didn’t want to leave! (As opposed to, say, Marion, North Carolina.) I can’t get back for next weekend’s Pickle Festival, but I expect I’ll get back to Mount Olive in May. I intend to bring a tape recorder so I can capture the sound of that terrific steam whistle.

And, oh, if you need somebody to dress up like a pickle and greet visitors, I WANT THE JOB!

Dear Readers, I highly recommend Mount Olive Dill Relish. I always keep a jar or two in the kitchen. Making coleslaw? Add a generous helping of Mount Olive Dill Relish along with your other ingredients to give it that special zing. That’s the secret to Gulahiyi’s coleslaw success. Or try Mount Olive Dill Relish in potato salad. Yum.

Since posting this story, I’ve learned that Mount Olive has a connection with one nearby mountain town. Acccording to the college website:

From its beginning, Mount Olive College has been sponsored by the Convention of Original Free Will Baptists. The institution was chartered in 1951 and opened in 1952 at Cragmont Assembly, the Free Will Baptist summer retreat grounds near Black Mountain. The School was called Mount Allen Junior College, taking its name from the mountain near Cragmont. In September 1953, the College was moved to Mount Olive, North Carolina, nearer the center of denominational strength in the eastern section of the state.

And by the way, it sounds like Mount Olive gets more folks turned out for their New Year’s Eve Pickle Drop than Brasstown, NC gets for their New Year’s Eve Possum Drop.

Ms. Williams, thanks for the information and thanks for the invitation. My apologies to the Mount Olive Pickle Company and the town of Mount Olive.

Please don't sue me...

Anonymous said...

Mt. Olive now has certified organic pickles available! I picked up a jar at Harold's Supermarket the other day. They sure do taste like pickles! Yum.

I've been to the Clay's Corner Possum Drop in Brasstown, and I can confirm they have far less than a few thousand show up. But, they do get hundreds of onlookers and an occasional Certified letter or nasty phone call from PETA.

All in good fun. That possum is treated like royalty.

Loved your investigative research. Too bad you never made it to the gift shop.