The Vidalia Onion Museum

Vidalia Onion Museum Collage

Georgia, you probably know, is the Peach State. But did you know that Georgia makes more money from onions than peaches?[1]Pecans have to rank in here somewhere if signs from the highway are any indication.

We didn’t either until our visit to the Vidalia Onion Museum.

The small town of Vidalia sits 20 minutes or so off I-16, about halfway between Macon and Savannah. It takes tremendous pride in its namesake vegetable. Driving through it, you’ll see signs for Onion City Motors, Sweet Onion Cinemas, Onion City Mini Storage, The Onion Inn—even The Sweet Onion Package Store. An onion fountain burbles in a downtown city park.

It’s the sweetness that makes Vidalias so special. Or so they tell me. I don’t actually like onions.[2]One of the great days of Soyia’s life was when I was instructed not to eat onions anymore. This was a great source of friction in our early relationship. Thanks, medical science! This visit was a sort of penance. When I was on Jeopardy!, I wasn’t quick enough on the buzzer to ring in with “What is a Vidalia?” on a question about Georgia’s sweet onions. My Georgia friends gave me tremendous grief about this, especially because my opponent pronounced it “Vihdalia” rather than “Vyedaylia,” a tremendous affront to Southerners everywhere. [3]I think Alex had something to say as well.

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But I digress. We pulled up to the little museum, situated in a nondescript office park off Highway 280, one rainy afternoon and spent about 45 minutes taking a free, self-guided tour designed to turn us into onion experts… 


A One-of-a-Kind Crop

The right seed, the right soil, and the right season combine to create the sweet onion. Sulfur in soil gives onions their heat; sandy soil like that in and around Vidalia is loose enough to let the sulfur seep out of reach of the onion plants. Mild winters and plentiful rain also contribute to the magic. Each year, South Georgia farmers plant about 12,000 acres of Vidalia Onions. The crop is almost all hand-planted and hand-harvested. In one day, a worker can plant about half an acre of onions or and harvest about a quarter-acre. It’s a labor-intensive business.


What’s in a Name?

These onions grow in other South Georgia towns. So why are they called Vidalias? Because in the 1940s, the state opened a farmer’s market in Vidalia, which sat at the junction of what were then much-traveled highways. Tourists began spreading the word about the Vidalia market’s special onions. Then in the 1950s, Piggly Wiggly Southern moved its headquarters to Vidalia. Soon it began buying local onions and stocking them on their shelves, marketed as Vidalia Onions.

Another digression: Did you know Piggly Wiggly invented the concept of the self-service supermarket? Before the first one opened in 1916, clerks gathered groceries for shoppers.


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Protecting their Turf

Not just anyone can call their onions Vidalias. In the mid-80s, after some out-of-staters were caught labeling their onions as Vidalias, South Georgia’s onion growers lobbied the state and federal governments to create a 20-county Vidalia Onion Region and make it a felony to call onions grown outside the region Vidalias.


History Lessons

The little museum includes plenty of interesting tidbits about the history of Vidalia Onions and features some charming videos of Vidalia’s older residents reminiscing about the glory days.


Etc.

You’ll also find recipes, photos of past Miss Vidalia Onion pageant winners, copies of books and movies that mention Vidalia Onions, and more.[4]Walla Walla, Washington, tried to usurp the “Best Tasting Onion” throne from the Vidalia. It didn’t end well for them. NICE TRY, WALLA WALLA!


If You Go

Want to see the museum for yourself? It’s located at 100 Vidalia Sweet Onion Dr. and open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. If you really want to immerse yourself in all things Vidalia Onion, the city holds the Vidalia Onion Festival each spring. The 2021 festival will take place April 22-25.


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