By SHERIDAN CYR
On a rainy Thursday morning, Southington Historical Society president Lisa Jansson stood beside a table in the Chamber of Commerce meeting room scattered with a handful of old photos, a small pile of cartoon drawings, a few erratic festival pamphlets, and an old flag.
“This is everything we’ve been able to find,” she said to Observer reporters.
This fall will mark the 50th Apple Harvest Festival. The annual festival has become a signature event with newspapers, television stations, and online sites overflowing with images and information. Facebook pages are stuffed with photos. Businesses print posters and pamphlets to announce their contributions. A banner stretches across Main Street to announce the festival to anybody that’s been living under a rock.
Memories of the early days are still vivid in the minds of many older residents, but memorabilia of festivals’ early days is few and far between.
“What we’ve come to find is that many things have been discarded over the years,” said Jansson. “It is a shame, but you don’t realize that something is historic as it’s occurring.”
Efforts are underway to build a collection at the historical society, but progress is slow. A large portion of the current collection was donated by Susan Buckler, daughter of the late George Kroher. He was the president of the chamber of commerce during the very first Apple Harvest Festival in 1969.
“I remember, that year, they had the chamber office back then next to the old Abby Theater, where they held all their meetings,” Buckler said. “There was always something every night, trying to get all the committees and the planning together. With all the farms and the apple orchards in town they came up with this idea, and it’s still going on today.”
Buckler recalled the chamber was looking for revenue from the town, and thus, the Apple Harvest Festival came to fruition. And even though Buckler said the festival was wonderful that first year, it was a humble beginning. Buckler still vividly recalls then-governor John N. Dempsey announcing: “Welcome to Stonington” during his opening remarks.
“An estimated 25,000 persons lined curbs and lawns throughout Southington Sunday to watch the largest parade ever to be seen here, climaxing the 10-day Apple Harvest Festival,” said one reporter in the Oct. 22, 1969 Southington News. “The two-mile parade route saw more than 120 marching units carrying out the parade theme of ‘Apples throughout the Ages.’”
The festival was sponsored and coordinated by the Greater Southington Chamber of Commerce until the town took the reins in 2005. Elsa Darling, then-executive secretary of the chamber was quoted saying the first festival was a success.
In its first decade alone, attendance estimations climbed from 25,000 to over 60,000 in 1979. “The Apple Harvest Festival is the most important fundraiser to most of our civic organizations,” festival chair Anthony D’Angelo reported to The Observer at the end of the first decade. “It creates good will within and between the clubs in town and also provides many benefits to the community by way of scholarships, aid, etc. from the profits that the clubs make during the festival.”
The festival naturally went through many growing pains, made several accomplishments, and hit a number of roadblocks of its own in its first decade. In its second year, the parade featured Company B, First Battalion, 25th Marines of the Fourth Marine Division of Hartford to pay homage to the war dead. The commanding officer of the unit reported the company of 200 men march in only two parades per year, and chose Southington’s festival as one of them. This was an honor to the town.
In its third year, the festival faced a dilemma when the park board would not allow the festival committee to set up booths on the Town Green. A large portion of activities were held on the west side of Main Street, and others were set up on the east side.
In 1974, the annual parade was re-routed from downtown Plantsville to a number of side streets in order to save Southington Police Department the burden of putting 30 additional officers on duty that day, which caused some uproar from citizens.
Still, the festival grew by leaps and bounds. The Oct. 11, 1971 Southington News reported: “If many folks in town during the Apple Festival don’t look familiar, it’s probably because they aren’t from Southington. The Chamber of Commerce received numerous calls and letters from out-of-state requesting information on the festival. It appears without a doubt that Southington’s festival is luring more and more out of towners each year as the word spreads.”
One of the reasons that out-of-town visitors flocked to the festival was a grass roots campaign. Chamber festival enthusiasts and Apple Harvest hostesses traveled to Rockefeller Centre in New York City and the Eastern States Exposition in Massachusetts promoting the event and handing out fliers.
In 1974, then-governor Thomas Meskill signed a proclamation declaring the week of Oct. 5-13 as “Connecticut’s Apple Harvest Festival week.” In just its sixth year, the festival had created wide-spread impact both in Connecticut and beyond.
One argument still circulating today came to light in the Observer’s Sept. 27, 1979 edition when one reporter was sent to downtown merchants’ businesses shortly before the festival began. A number of merchants reported their businesses were suffering during the festival. Festival officials disagreed, and called it “a negative attitude” of business owners who do not choose to participate or interact with the festival.
In its first decade, the festival certainly went through some ups and downs as it strived to figure out its own identity. Nevertheless, it grew year after year, welcoming residents and visitors from all over to the town of Southington and securing a tradition for now 50 years.
To donate memorabilia and old photos, visit the Southington Historical Society at 239 Main St. every Thursday, from 5 to 8 p.m., or contact them at (860) 621-4811 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Cyr, email her at SCyr@SouthingtonObserver.com.