WINSLOW — Nearly five decades ago, the Winslow Congregational Church was in a bit of a bind. The religious community was struggling with a budget that could barely support its needs. Then, John Houston had an idea.

Houston — at that time the superintendent of the Winslow, Vassalboro and China school district — owned a family farm in Bucksport. It produced tons of blueberries. Perhaps, he thought, if churchgoers chipped in to help turn the blueberries into tasty baked goods, the greater Winslow community might be interested in purchasing the treats that featured Maine’s hallmark fruit. The church could keep the proceeds. And so, the Winslow Congregational Church’s annual blueberry festival began. It was 1971.

“The first year it was modest, but we made some money, so each year we kept coming back with things that worked,” said Mary Morrison, a longtime member of the congregation.

Today, the event has become the church’s biggest fundraiser of the year, according to Rev. Kim Shrader. The one-day celebration rakes in anywhere between $8,000 and $10,000 through the sale of blueberry pies, muffins and ice cream sundaes; a silent auction; yard sale and admission to a three-hour-long, all-you-can-eat blueberry pancake extravaganza.

The Winslow Congregational Church’s annual blueberry festival is one of 12 that take place in Maine each summer.

This year’s festival was held Saturday on the front lawn of the 12 Lithgow St. property. Over 450 people came and went, relaxing and enjoying each other’s company as live bands performed folk music and classic rock from the church’s front steps. A record-high number of homemade pies sold out in record time, noted church member and publicist Dave Carew. By 10:45 a.m., all 465 pies were gone. The festival started at 7 a.m.

One person, said unofficial chief baker Bud Vassey, purchased five pies before they even made it out of the kitchen Friday. They sold for $9 apiece, or two for $16.

In all, about 25 volunteers are involved with making the blueberry pies, according to Vassey. The process starts on Wednesday, when church members clean over 400 pounds of berries and pick out the green or deformed ones. The berries pass two to three inspectors in a makeshift production line before, as Carew noted: “Boom, into the bucket, and then into the pie.” The bakers also whip up dough and roll it into balls. Friday at 6 a.m., people gather at the Winslow Junior High School kitchen to begin baking.

“We’ve got people who are rolling out the pie dough for the bottoms,” described Shrader, who is among the congregation’s volunteers. “Usually one or two people are mixing up the blueberries with the sugar and the spices, and then someone else is scooping it into the bottoms, and then there’s a whole other group of people who are rolling out the tops. … There’s another group of people that crimps the top and does little cutout things on it. Some people get creative, with smiley faces, the (symbol) pi or they just do slits or different things, then put a little sugar on the top, and it goes into a rack.”

Town Council Chairman Steve Russell staffed the ovens, which can collectively cook 48 pies at a time, Shrader added. And the issue of “too many cooks in the kitchen”? It’s not a problem for the blueberry bakers, Morrison explained.

One of the record-high 465 blueberry pies sold during Saturday’s 48th annual blueberry festival at the Winslow Congressional Church on Lithgow Street in Winslow. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“It’s a lot of fun,” she said of Friday’s work. “There was a little bit of singing at one point this year and even some harmony on one of the songs.”

On Saturday, festival-goers said the dessert lived up to the hype.

“I’m not much of a pie person, but according to everyone else, they’re fantastic,” said Benjamin Collins, of Waterville, whose family took home two.

“I wish we came earlier so we could have gotten some pie or cake,” said first-time attendee Erika Bernardini. “But the kids are happy with the ice cream with blueberry sauce.” Bernardini brought her mother, Peggy Stubbs, of Skowhegan, and daughters Maya, 3, and Kali, 2, Saturday.

Though Shrader said she had not yet tallied the day’s earning’s by the afternoon, she expressed that the cool, shady day likely made the event successful.

“Perfect weather helps,” she noted.

Last year, the particularly harsh August heat kept attendance lower than usual. About 40 leftover pies — per tradition, when there are leftovers — went to Boucher’s Meats on Benton Road.

Though Houston is no longer alive, Shrader said he is still, in many ways, the lifeblood of the festival.

“He came up with a mission statement that yes (the festival is) about making sure that the church is financially stable, but it’s also about bringing in the community and doing something nice for the community and bringing people in,” Shrader noted.

When Houston passed away, it was thought by some that he had left it in his will to have the family farm in Bucksport provide the blueberries for the festival every year, but according to his son Steven, “It was an oral discussion that we agreed to try to continue with this tradition, but it was not stated in his will.”

Nevertheless it does make the hearts of many happy.

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