A modern-day event celebrating Fort Wayne’s heritage will once again bring hundreds of thousands of people together in one place later this month.
The Johnny Appleseed Festival is back for a 45th year.
Paying Homage to History
Bridget Kelly has been a festival board member for almost 30 of those years and says she never gets tired of the ambience, the visitors, and the traditions.
“First of all, it is in the fall, which is my favorite time of year, so the weather is usually nice and it’s not horribly hot,” Kelly said. “This year it’s later in the month, so that gives us an even better chance of having good weather. I just love the entire atmosphere. I love the smell of the wood burning fires and the people who come out every year and are having a great time as well as the people who have never seen it and are totally amazed.”
Always held during the third full weekend in September, this year’s festival will take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 22, at Johnny Appleseed and Archer parks off Coliseum Boulevard.
What sets the festival apart from others is how it pays homage to history.
“We always hold to the period of authenticity, so anything that is sold or served has to be appropriate to the period of the mid 1800s when John Chapman [known as Johnny Appleseed] lived,” Kelly said. “Food has to be prepared over wood or coal fires, and items that are sold have to be made of materials that would’ve been available back then. They can sell wooden toys, but they can’t sell wooden airplanes.
“It is meant to give the feel of an end-of-summer or fall festival that a town would have had where the farmers could bring in their crops for sale, the women would have baked their baked goods and brought in their home crafts, and there would have been entertainment going on at all times. We have all of that.”
Focus on the familiar
Steeped in tradition, this year’s festival will feature lots of familiar vendors. But there will also be new attractions.
“Every five years we have an apple baking contest, so because this is the 45th year, we’ll host one of those this year,” Kelly said. “It’s apple pies for adults and any sort of apple dessert for younger children. We always get a good turnout for that.
“We’ll have celebrity judges who will come out and taste all the pies and desserts and then make their determination. At the end we slice those up and we give them over to the Psi Iota Xi booth and they sell them as part of a fundraiser.”
Other popular attractions include a children’s area featuring a straw maze, face painting, ring toss, and other games from the past. Nearby is a Civil War encampment where visitors can learn about military drills, uniforms, and equipment.
There is continuous free entertainment on three stages, including performances from musicians, cloggers, magicians, and storytellers.
Period entertainers will also roam through the crowds during the festival.
Each day at 2 p.m., the Gathering of the Bands will take place at the Festival Stage to showcase the pipe, fife, and drum corps. Each group will perform individually and then join together for a crowd-favorite performance of “Amazing Grace.”
Free Admission as always
“We generally anticipate between 200,000 and 225,000 visitors,” Kelly said. “For a city this size, that is really remarkable. A lot of visitors come from the outside. There is a family that comes up every year from Brownsville, Texas, which is about as far south in Texas as you can get. People have come in from Canada just to see the festival. I think it is because there’s really something for everyone.
“If you want to come and buy crafts, it’s a great place to do your pre-Christmas shopping. There are a lot of Christmas crafts, a lot of Halloween-type items that are for sale, there is food that is available, and then you can take the kids over to play the pioneer games, there is a living history area where Abraham Lincoln makes an appearance each year with the troops that are assembled down by the river.”
One aspect of the festival that has never changed is the admission price.
“People have always kind of said, ‘Just put a fence around it and charge everyone a dollar,’ but we don’t want to do that. We want to keep it free. You can come out there and spend a boatload of money, or you can come out there and spend nothing and both people have an equally good time.”
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