When one thinks of the Great Plains, images of tumbleweeds, roaming buffalo, and tall prairie grass spring to mind. But what else is happening in Nebraska? The Cornhusker State boasts some of the oddest festivals around. From duck-racing events to pastry shootouts and everything in between, the nation’s 38th most populous state offers a zany event for everyone.
Here are the oddest -- and most fun -- Nebraska festivals to add to your Midwestern bucket list.
1. Kool-Aid Days, Hastings
Second Weekend Of August
Hastings is a town of about 25,000 residents in central Nebraska. As this festival's name suggests, this nondescript place was actually the birthplace of Kool-Aid. Way back in 1927, a local named Edwin Perkins created the powdered drink in his mother’s kitchen. To honor this claim to fame, Hastings celebrates Kool-Aid Days each summer.
The festival weekend offers tons of activities, including a Miss Kool-Aid pageant, a fun run, a 5-kilometer race, a Kool-Aid drinking contest, cardboard boat races, a flying disc tournament, and more.
If you’d like to spend more time in the state, consider making the 5-hour road trip to Carhenge near Alliance, Nebraska. You could also check out the big city of Omaha, which is just a 2-hour drive away from Hastings by car.
2. Quack-Off, Avoca
Last Saturday Of January
While most Nebraska festivals occur during the mild spring, summer, or fall season, Cass County’s Quack-Off embraces the chill of winter. The quirky festival, often referred to as the Avoca Duck Races, takes place each year on the last Saturday of January. At this event, which has been going strong for 40 years, participants can register a duck for the races for $20. Then, the ducks race on an ice track -- it’s a slippery good time! The duck races raise money for the area’s volunteer fire department. Visitors can also enjoy a hog roast, beer garden, duck themed-costumes (for people, not fowl), and other area vendors.
If you’d like to spend more time in the area, you can visit Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, which is only 45 minutes away. The zoo is the most-visited attraction in the whole state, and it won’t be busy during wintertime.
3. AppleJack Festival, Nebraska City
The AppleJack Festival is more on the fun side than the weird, but it’s certainly worth a visit. Each year, this harvest celebration in Nebraska City draws about 70,000 visitors! And it’s easy to see why, since USA Today named the AppleJack Festival one of the nation’s top fall festivals.
The weekend celebrates the beginning of the apple harvest season with lots of apple-themed fun. Foods like candy apples, apple pie, apple donuts, apple salad, and caramel apples plus drinks like apple sangria and apple cider make this fall activity perfect for the whole family.
Guests can pick apples, attend a classic car show, visit multiple craft fairs, run a race, go bowling, eat pancakes, and so much more. The Nebraska City Extreme Bullriding Tour finals take place at the AppleJack Festival, and live music, children’s storytime, water barrel fights, and a carnival round out the offerings.
Nebraska City is also home to the beautiful Arbor Day Farm, Lied Lodge. Less than an hour away is Indian Cave State Park, the perfect place for hiking, camping, archery, fishing, picnicking, and more.
4. Testicle Festival, Ashland
Father’s Day Weekend
A departure from the previous family-friendly festival, the Testicle Festival is perhaps the weirdest of the weird Nebraska festivals. Held every Father’s Day weekend at the Round the Bend Steakhouse in Ashland, about halfway between Lincoln and Omaha, this odd celebration has been going strong for more than 25 years.
Billed as “the best field party in the Midwest,” this event includes fireworks, live music and dancing, food vendors, and more. But the signature activity of the weekend is the ball-eating contest, in which contestants compete to eat the most deep-fried bull testicles, or bull fries. Clearly, this festival is not for the faint of heart, caters to men, and is a less family-friendly option.
But Wei Tchou, who wrote about the festival in Esquire, found some unexpected charm in the celebration.
“According to The Oxford Companion to Food, the tradition of eating testicles in spring is common, at least in pastoral communities where cattle farming is a way of life. There, in keeping with the tradition of honoring the Earth and its inhabitants, nothing goes to waste, including in spring when young cattle are branded and castrated,” wrote Tchou.
With its convenient location between Nebraska’s two largest cities, Ashland is a great place from which to further explore the state. Lincoln, the state’s capital city, is a cool college town, the home of the University of Nebraska. Omaha is home to the famous College World Series, which always occurs around the time of this festival.
5. Kolache Shootout, Elba
The town of Elba’s festival pays homage to the state’s Czech settlers by celebrating their most well-known pastry. The Kolache Shootout is actually a kolache competition intended to raise money for the local community center. Competitors can enter in a few different categories, such as plum, apricot, peach, cherry, cheese, prune, poppyseed, and more. The festivities also include a traditional polka Mass, a bake sale, a dinner, live accordion music, and more.
While you’re in the area, plan on spending some time in nearby Grand Island, Nebraska. The city and surrounding area are home to the well-respected Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, a cute and walkable downtown, and numerous wineries and vineyards.
6. Wayne Chicken Show, Wayne
Second Weekend In July
The Chicken Show in the town of Wayne has been held every July since 1981. This festival truly embraces its namesake, with tons of chicken-themed activities and fun for the whole family.
There’s a hot-wing-eating contest, rooster-crowing contest, cluck-off, egg toss, rubber-chicken throw, hard-boiled-egg-eating contest, and so much more. Attendees can also enjoy a sidewalk vendor market, an omelet feed, tours of the town, volleyball, a petting zoo, a chicken cook-off, live music, a parade, and even planetarium shows.
Wayne is roughly 2 hours by car from Omaha. The town is known for its cute antique and secondhand shops like 1912 Emporium, Thrift Warehouse, and Rustic Treasures. There’s also a neat fossil site within the nearby Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historic Park.
7. Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival, Burwell
Every Other April
Yet another bird-tastic celebration, the Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival, is held in Burwell every other year. According to the event’s website, the festival is intended “to celebrate prairie grouse species, the grasslands they inhabit, and the culture that surrounds them.”
Festivalgoers can expect educational speakers, birding excursions, food, and fun with a conservation approach. Please note, this is not a come-one, come-all type of gathering. This special festival is limited to the first 50 registered participants.
If you have additional time to spend in central Nebraska, there are a couple of noteworthy options. Garfield County is home to Calamus State Recreation Area. Calamus has a 5,000-acre lake and provides prime opportunities for fishing, camping, hiking, boating, picnicking, and more. Burwell is also located in the heart of Nebraska’s scenic Sandhills, so great golf courses and hunting options abound.
8. Sweet Corn Festival, Omaha
Omaha’s Lauritzen Gardens plays host to the annual Sweet Corn Festival, a celebration of Nebraska’s seasonal staple. The event includes live music, hayrides, popcorn sampling, cornhole (bean bags), and more. Local chefs prepare sweet corn in numerous creative ways for attendees to sample. Sweet corn is an agricultural behemoth in Nebraska and deserves to be celebrated for its economic impact and downright delicious taste.
The Sweet Corn Festival is right down the street from the previously mentioned Henry Doorly Zoo, the state’s biggest tourist draw. Visitors should also plan to spend some time at the nearby Durham Museum, the Joslyn Art Museum, and the cute entertainment district of Old Market.