By SHERIDAN CYR
There are several traditions that come to mind when locals reminisce on memories made at Southington’s annual Apple Harvest Festival: the Zion Lutheran Church’s famous apple fritters have been a staple of the festival for years; visitors can test out their adrenaline on various rides at the carnival; there’s something for everyone at the Arts and Craft show, and of course, the must-see annual parade which draws thousands each year.
One tradition of the festival – one that serves the purpose of saying “thank you” to all who make the festival possible – hopes to grow leaps and bounds this year in celebration of 50 years of the AHF making history and memories for all: the AHF gala.
“The gala is a great chance for the community to preview some of the upcoming highlights of the festival,” said this year’s festival and sponsor coordinator, Melissa Ericksen-Cocuzza. “We can all celebrate this big, fun, community event together, and get a small flavor of what we will enjoy at this year’s historic festival.”
On Sept. 20, AHF sponsors, volunteers, committee members, AHF hosts and hostesses and all who dedicate their time, efforts and passion to building up the festival, will be joined by community members at the AquaTurf Club from 6 to 10 p.m. in the Wagon Room to kick off the 50th anniversary festival. It will include dinner, dancing, entertainment and a host/hostess ceremony.
“We hope to add a historic touch to this year’s gala, being that we are celebrating the festival’s 50th anniversary,” said Ericksen-Cocuzza. Memorabilia and other historic pieces will be available to view. “Being that this is the 50th year, we really would love for past players to be involved – past AHF queens, hostesses, committee members, volunteers – the more the better. Having their presence would make the whole event that much richer.”
This year, Ericksen-Cocuzza made a point to enhance the entertainment. The gala will include dancing, live-music, and hopefully, a visit from the popular Bradley Mountain goats. The goats will be donning little apple hats.
Also special this year, for the first time ever, the hostess program was opened to young men, as well.
In the past, the girls were asked a series of questions at the gala, and a committee would select one hostess to be that year’s AHF queen. This year, either a queen or king will be selected.
“The gala always celebrates and acknowledges the hostess program, and this year, we were able to include young men in the program. The program is promoted at the end of the school year and is open to juniors and seniors,” said Ericksen-Cocuzza. “This year, we received 17 applications in just 10 days. We are really excited that so many people were interested. Next year, we may expand the program to include more people.”
Today’s gala celebrates the sponsors, volunteers, and AHF hosts and hostesses who all dedicate their time, efforts and passion to building up the festival for their community, but the gala has taken different forms over the years. Records of Apple Harvest Festival history are few and far between, but according to local newspapers in the early 1970s, the gala had a different name, location, date and itinerary altogether.
In its very early days, in 1969 and 1970, Southington News reporters informed readers that tickets for the “Chamber Harvest Ball” were selling fast. Today’s gala always kicks off the festival, usually scheduled for within one week of the festival’s opening day. In 1969, the Harvest Ball was planned as one of the festival’s last big hurrahs.
“Southington is swinging into the climactic second weekend of the first Apple Harvest Festival, which will conclude with the Harvest Ball Saturday night at Lake Compounce and the Festival parade Sunday afternoon,” wrote one reporter in 1969.
And, in 1970, David Kelley, the Harvest Ball chairman, was quoted saying, “The Apple Harvest Ball is one of the main events of the annual Apple Festival, and people who plan to attend are urged to make reservations early.”
Details of the 1970s ball featured music provided by the Martin Lubin Orchestra from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. featuring vocals by then-Miss Connecticut. A breakfast was served in the dining room beginning at midnight.
The event also didn’t always nominate a queen. There was a time where the queen was selected by popular vote, and polling places around town were announced in local papers.
Eventually, the event moved to the Elks Club in downtown Southington, and later, moved to the Aqua Turf club. Somewhere along the way, it also became a pre-festival event.
Just as the festival has continued to grow and change, so has the gala. To buy tickets for this year’s event, visit www.southingtonahf.com. Tickets are $40 per person.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Cyr, email her at SCyr@SouthingtonObserver.com.