Long believed to hold magical powers — from keeping the doctor away to eliciting good grades from that special teacher — apples are as deeply ingrained in the American consciousness as, well, apple pie.
Romantic myths aside, though, the business of apples is big in western North Carolina — to the tune of $21 million per year. Henderson County is the nation’s seventh-largest apple producer (and the largest in the state). And, since 1938, the North Carolina Apple Festival, held in Hendersonville, has celebrated the joys — both ethereal and economic — of that rotund red fruit.
According to Marketing Coordinator Marybeth Burns, the festival began as a centennial celebration in Hendersonville, sponsored by a group of leading citizens. When World War II came, the celebration was discontinued. In 1947, however, it was reborn as the Apple Blossom Festival, held during a certain weekend every spring. “But it was hard to predict when the trees would blossom,” Burns explains, “so it was changed to a fall festival, to celebrate the apple harvest.”
Apple Festival Coordinator Jody Drake remembers the early days of the revived harvest festival. “It was much, much smaller than today,” she points out. “A few special promotions were held by local merchants … like sidewalk sales; there was the King Apple Parade, a street dance on Monday night, and always a beauty pageant — that was a big focus.”
Today, the King Apple Parade still reigns, though the beauty pageant is no more. Instead, a young woman — usually a high-school junior — is chosen as Apple Ambassador, based on her grades, public-speaking skills and, as Drake puts it, “a good knowledge of apples.” The Apple Ambassador’s duties include holding court with the governor when he declares September “Apple Month” in North Carolina, and putting in appearances at festivals and fairs around the state.
More than 250,000 visitors from across the South enjoyed last year’s Apple Festival — a far cry from the days when the event attracted mostly locals. But one thing hasn’t changed, according to both Burns and Drake: The Apple Festival is still decidedly family-oriented. No alcohol is sold (and none is allowed), and the activities are geared for all ages.
“Parents, grandparents, children … there’s something for everybody at the festival,” says Drake. “It’s very much a family festival. It’s still a real down-home event.”
This year’s North Carolina Apple Festival runs Friday through Monday, Sept. 4-7. For a complete, day-by-day schedule of events, see chart on page 23.