Monday, November 16, 2015

WFUL-AM goes Bananas

I first noticed the Country radio station 1270 WFUL-AM in 2004 back to WFUL. The station had changed calls to WKZT in March of 1988, to honor of longtime Fulton, KY resident Kenneth Z. Turner. (Turner had been mayor of Fulton for 12 years and was city Commissioner for a stretch in the 1970s. ) But that 16 year stretch and the flip back to the original call sign. I had the feeling this might be an odd little station... and it is.

I was reading the city's "about us" section on their website. Much to my surprise this small rural Kentucky town with a population of 2,775 once declared itself “Banana Capital of the World.”
"The first railroad deed was sold in 1857, and construction reached Pontotoc in 1859. At that time Fulton was referred to as the “end of the line” by the United States Government and all mail was addressed to this extent. In 1896, the Illinois Central Railroad owned the two railroad lines that crossed Fulton, which saw 30 passenger trains a day and 3,000 freight cars that picked up or delivered cargo. The freight cars would usually have bananas that would stop in Fulton to be re-iced and then shipped to rest of the country. Through this process, Fulton became know as the “Banana Capital of the World."
It turns out that 70% of bananas imported to the U.S. were once shipped to Fulton. Not for consumption but just for ice. The United Fruit Co, now re-branded as Chiquita, shipped bananas from South America by ship to the port of New Orleans. The bananas were initially loaded into rail cars on top of blocks of ice for the trip north. Fulton, KY was on the route to Chicago and operated the Fulton Ice Plant. In short, it was an accident of geography. They still held the International Banana Festival there from 1962 through 1992.

The bananas had been shipping through Fulton before 1900. There is a radio story about why they became the banana capital of the world  in 1962. Mrs. Johanna Westpheling was a former reporter for the Washington post during WWII. After the war, she and her husband moved to Fulton in 1947.  He had been with the office of war administration. They bought the local newspaper, the Fulton County News and in 1955 they bought 1270 WFUL-AM. Her husband, Paul Westpheling thus became the president of Ken-Tenn Broadcasting. 

When the Roman Catholic Diocese of Owensboro, KY published a book on it's history they included a short article on the Westpheling family. The family is very political and connected. Johanna was a longtime member of the state Democratic committee, even was a delegate at five national conventions. So when the book Bananas: An American History by Virginia Jenkins credits Johanna with the banana phenomenon.. dispel your doubts.

Acting as a Fulton County News and WFUL reporter, Johanna Westpheling had attended the Arthur Godfrey and His Friends is an American television variety show.  Arthur Godfrey show in 1958.  She was escorting a high school student and a ukulele player. But Johanna was no ordinary escort. She was on a mission to promote Fulton as the banana capitol of the United States.She referred to Fulton as the banana capitol. Godfrey must have thought it was funny, because he let her bring it up twice more. Upon her return home the effort was on. Standard Fruit and Dole got involved, the National Association of Banana Agents did a fund-raiser, everything came together and the first festival kicked off in 1963. Miss America came, the Guatemalan Army Marimba band played and they made a one-ton Banana pudding.

Johanna  died in 1986. She had been the president of the International Banana Festival  five times. In 2012, the WFUL-AM license was cancelled and its call sign deleted