Fans of the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle will hold their 18th annual festival on Sunday, their first gathering since the Collinsville landmark changed ownership last November.
Mike “The Big Tomato” Gassmann, president of the water tower’s preservation group, say he's relishing the occasion.
“We’re really happy with our new owner, and we’re really looking forward to the future,’’ said Gassmann, who wears a button on his cap that reads “I put catsup on my ketchup.”
The preservation group supports but has never owned the 70-foot Catsup Bottle that sits atop a 100-foot tower. The 67-year-old landmark is on a 3 acre-site where Brooks catsup was once produced. The water tower and adjacent warehouses were purchased in November by Al Bieri, owner of an O’Fallon, Ill., construction company.
Gassmann is married to Judy DeMoisy who spearheaded the campaign in the 1990s to preserve the water tower. They organize the annual family-friendly festival held at Collinsville’s Woodland Park. There’s no space for such an event at the Catsup Bottle, which is just south of downtown Collinsville on busy Illinois 159.
“We call it an old-fashioned backyard birthday party for the Catsup Bottle, and we just happen to invite three or four thousand of our closest friends,’’ Gassmann said.
Events include an antique car, truck and motorcycle show and old-fashioned games, like hula hoop contests and balloon tosses. On the schedule this year are hot dog and tater tot eating contests. (The dogs and spuds are “smothered” in Brooks ketchup.) The Little Princess and Sir Catsup pageant is a festival tradition for boys and girls, ages 3 to 6.
Woodland Park is also home to the city’s annual International Horseradish Festival, which sort of makes Collinsville the condiment capital of Illinois.
“We’re really good friends with the horseradish people, and we’re always joking about combining our events together. Make it the big giant cocktail sauce event,’’ Gassmann joked. “We’d have to get a big shrimp boat to come up the Mississippi.”
The Catsup Bottle was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. It's listed among the nation’s top roadside attractions and has fans from across the region and around the world. It has its own website and Facebook page, filled with tributes from fans.
Some people drive out of their way just to see it, including Route 66 travelers. The nearest alignment of that historic roadway is about 2 miles north of the bottle.
The "bottle" was designed to hold 100,000 gallons of water, but Gassmann and DeMoisy don’t mind that lots of people think it’s filled with you-know-what.
“Probably every child that drives buy it thinks it has ketchup in it because their parents tell them it has a spigot on the side, and ‘This is where we fill our catsup bottles,’ ’’ DeMoisy said. “There are all kinds of tales -- and they’re all true.”
She notes that there are water towers in all sorts of shapes around the country but this is the one and only Catsup Bottle.“I think that’s what makes it so fun. Kids love it, but so do the adults,’’ she said.
The water tower was constructed in 1949 by the G.S. Suppiger company which had purchased the Brooks Catsup factory during the Great Depression. In 1994, Bethel-Eckert Enterprises, a local trucking company, bought the tower and warehouses and worked with the preservationists who raised nearly $100,000 to repaint the bottle. In July 2014, Bethel-Eckert put the water tower up for sale, raising concerns about its future. It was for sale for a year and a half before Bieri stepped forward to claim the Catsup Bottle.
Gassmann says that Bieri is a fan of the landmark.
"He's all about it," Gassmann said. "He told us, 'Keep up the good work.' "
World's Largest Catsup Bottle Festival
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Woodland Park, Pine Lake Road, near the intersection of Illinois 159 and Beltline Road in Collinsville
What: A birthday party for the unique water tower, featuring a car show and family-friendly events
Information: Visit the festival website.