While the Vidalia Onion Museum can't help but snag visitors to this weekend's big festival, supporters hope it will become a year-round destination.
Near Southeastern Technical College off the U.S. Highway 280 "Strip" between Lyons and Vidalia, the museum will hold its opening celebration Friday at the start of the Vidalia Onion Festival, which includes a street dance Friday evening, and an air show, carnival and other events through Sunday.
Visitors can tour the museum beginning Friday. Also, five chefs, among them Kevin Gillespie from Atlanta's Woodfire Grill and Jeffrey Buben from the restaurant named Vidalia in Washington D.C., will prepare dishes for guests invited to the grand opening.
The museum opens to the public at 3 p.m. Friday and will open both Saturday and Sunday during the festival weekend. Beyond that, its regular hours will be 9 a.m. till 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. There is no charge to visit.
The professionally designed museum packs nine onion-specific exhibits into a 1,300-square-foot space. A tenth exhibit, "the smallest registered Vidalia onion field" consists of two onion patches planted in front of the building on either side of the entrance. The museum shares 100 Sweet Onion Drive with the Vidalia Onion Committee and the Vidalia Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and is intended as a tourist magnet for both.
It is already a source of pride for one Statesboro native who transplanted herself to Vidalia, Wendy Brannen. As the Vidalia Onion Committee's executive director for almost six years now, Brannen made creating a real museum her personal quest.
"When I first came through that door to turn in my resumé to apply for this job, I walked in and said, 'Where's the museum?' and they said, 'You just walked through it.' ..." Brannen recalls. "Thankfully, I still got the job."
The city of Vidalia, she explains, had started collecting materials for a small museum years earlier, but the collection remained fragmentary. When tourists walked past the few items then displayed in the Onion Committee/Visitors Bureau entryway, she could see their disappointment. Reawakening the project, she chaired a museum task force established under the Toombs-Montgomery Chamber of Commerce's permanent Agribusiness Committee.
Growers, whose product she promotes nationally through her job with the Vidalia Onion Committee, backed the project, as did the city, which owns the building.
Brannen and the museum subcommittee lined up about $200,000, including state tourism grants, a federal grant for promoting a specialty crop, and a long list of industry sponsorships. With the city throwing in a renovation of the building, the total project has cost about $250,000, Brannen estimates. That does not include the value of donated items on display.
Drawing on her background as a TV news reporter, she did much of the research herself, seeking to untangle facts from local folklore.
"Everyone has their account of the history of Vidalia onions," Brannen said. "One thing that I realized was that if I interviewed enough people and took enough notes and then compared those notes and overlaid one set of notes over the other, eventually it came together like putting a puzzle together and you would get a clear and more accurate picture."
An Atlanta consulting firm, ExhibitCraft Studios/MindMade Communications, helped design and build the displays after Brannen and other local people gathered the artifacts.
Entering the building, visitors first see the museum's logo on a wall made of translucent panels curved to represent the layers of an onion.
Around the corner behind that wall, there's a mural of onions growing in a field, hand-painted to superhuman scale. It's the background for the "Recipe for a Vidalia Onion," exhibit.
"Pioneers, Problems and Promise" recounts the sweet onion's arrival, beginning with the efforts of local farmers to find a new crop during the Great Depression. Mose Coleman, long hailed as the first Vidalia onion farmer, is listed, and the museum isn't far from the ground he farmed. But other pioneer planters, in particular Ed Tensley and Earlie Jordan, are also represented, as is the role of the Piggly Wiggly Southern, the now defunct Vidalia-based grocery distributor.
"Protecting a Name and Its Fame" spotlights efforts to control the use of the "Vidalia" label. Georgia's "onion law," dating from 1986, and a federal marketing order, from 1989, restricted the growing region to 13 whole counties and parts of seven others. "Vidalia® onion" has been a certification mark owned by the state of Georgia since 1990.
Against criticism of the museum's grant funding as "pork barrel" spending, Brannen cites the Vidalia onion's unique status, as well as potential tourism and educational use.
"We are the official state vegetable, and that is one thing that I'm trying to make sure that people understand, that this isn't just about the Vidalia area, that this is really a project that we've done on behalf of the entire state," she said.
The exhibit "Vidalias in Pop Culture" includes a video screen, one of several incorporated into the museum. Visitors can watch clips of the onion's mentions on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?", "Jeopardy" and "Cash Cab" and spot evidence of its involvement in a fictional murder investigation on "CSI Miami."
"On the Menu" similarly exposes the popularity of Vidalias with celebrity cooks from Julia Child to Bobby Flay.
"Sweet World for Kids," a room to itself, contains a crank-operated onion grader, with durable plastic balls representing onions. Schools are already expressing interest the museum, said Brannen.
Detailed info on the festival is available at www.vidaliaonionfestival.com. The Onion Committee's website is www.vidaliaonion.org.