LITCHFIELD -- In January 1971, Litchfield grocer Bruce Cottington faced stiff competition from a new store in town. He needed a gimmick to stimulate sales, so he decided to promote eating peanut butter and drinking milk.
The gimmick eventually led to a 40-year sister city exchange program between Litchfield in the North's dairy land and Hartford, Ala., in the heart of Southern cotton and peanut country. The long exchange continues to celebrate rural America, good food, agriculture, the dairy and peanut industries and involvement of young people.
The whole thing began when Cottington and his produce manager Lloyd Kuehl told listeners of their daily KLFD radio show how often they ate peanut butter and drank milk. They hit on the idea of proclaiming Litchfield the peanut butter capital of the world.
They said listeners would get a special price on peanut butter if they came into Cottington's Super Valu store. The whole town came in, according to Cottington. Super Valu's parent company, which owned a peanut butter factory, created a display with 200 jars of 18-ounce Super Valu peanut butter, and Cottington even had a large jar filled with peanut butter.
While researching the peanut industry, Cottington was directed to Alabama, one of the nation's top peanut-producing states and the Alabama city of Hartford where Cottington made contact with the FFA adviser and students at Geneva County High School.
In October 1971, the Cottington family traveled down south in a Chevrolet specially painted in two-tone peanut butter brown and milk white, and made presentations to state officials along the way.
In Alabama, Cottington gave Gov. George Wallace a gift of dairy products, and Wallace signed a proclamation declaring all Meeker County residents as honorary residents of Alabama.
The Cottingtons visited Hartford and participated in the annual National Peanut Festival in Dothan, which is located about 20 miles northeast of Hartford. Cottington visited with FFA adviser Paul Dean and FFA students, and the idea of a north-south exchange program was finalized.
In February 1972, five Hartford residents including Dean and FFA student Neil Outlaw visited Litchfield. In the fall of 1972, four Litchfield residents including Cottington and FFA student Brent Schultz visited Hartford.
Due to the goodwill created by those first visits, Litchfield and Hartford continued sending student and adult delegations to each other's city. The Litchfield group travels to Hartford in November and the Hartford group travels to Litchfield in February. They stay with host families.
The Litchfield group tours cotton and peanut farms and local businesses in Hartford and Dothan, and attends local events. This year, they're attending the 68th annual National Peanut Festival in Dothan. The festival began Friday and ends Nov. 13. During the Nov. 12 parade, Cottington will ride with Neal Outlaw, Hartford's first FFA delegate to Litchfield.
Two Litchfield groups will travel to Hartford this year. The first group of eight FFA students, one dairy princess and three adults departs today and will return Nov. 10. The second group of 20 residents, comprising the 40th anniversary delegation, will be there Nov. 10-13.
The Hartford group learns about the Minnesota dairy industry, tours local and area industries, and enjoys wintertime activities such as snowmobiling, ice fishing and downhill skiing.
Litchfield's Peanut Butter and Milk Festival organizers say the exchange continues because young people are helping promote the program.
"We thought the promotion would last a year or so, but it didn't because of these kind of people,'' said Cottington, now in his 80s, as he gestures during an interview toward younger committee members. "They picked it up and they kept it going today. We've added new people. We've got new leadership.''
Festival Chairman Terri Anderson, part of the 40th anniversary delegation, is pleased the program continues.
"It's entirely volunteer and it's been amazing for me to watch how the young people in FFA and high school are excited to be a part of this year after year and I've enjoyed getting to know these kids. They're great kids year after year,'' she said.
"It's been really fun to watch them grow and several of them have graduated from college and have come back into the community and we're starting to see them become involved as young adults in our committee,'' she said.
Rob Cole, in his seventh year as Litchfield High School ag teacher, was a delegate to Hartford in 2005. He said students are amazed at the differences in agriculture. He said graduates recall the trip as a highlight of their high school experience.
"They appreciate the chance to be immersed into somewhere else because you become part of their family, part of their city and that's really neat,'' said Cole. "They get a chance to meet local folks, see local industry, do things with people that they do on a daily basis. I hope the folks in Alabama would say the same thing about us when they come up and visit. I think they would.''
Past festival chairman Robert Hermann said the program has had a positive effect on Litchfield and Hartford.
"I would say just getting to know the folks down there, spending some time with them and having them come up here. They spend a week up here. For a lot of them it's the first time to see snow, to see a lake froze over that you can drive out on with a vehicle,'' Hermann said. "In the winter they have a hard time comprehending what keeps us up here.''
Loree Schultz has been involved since 1995 when she traveled to Hartford for the 25th annual trip. Schultz said adults learn as much as the students.
"I just couldn't believe even the differences from the northern U.S. to southern U.S. There is a mentality in everything. Down there they close (the bank) on Thursdays when I was down there,'' said Schultz, who works at Center Bank in Litchfield. "The differences between states and just the knowledge you gain about your own country that you're in is amazing.''
Even though industries and weather differ, Anderson said people are basically the same.
"They are small-town people with small-town values and they're proud of their communities and we are too,'' she said. "They are very gracious hosts to us when we're down there and we try to do the same when they come here. I think we've succeeded in that because it's still a successful program after 40 years.''