The names roll off the tongue like poetry — Starkcrimson, Vance Red Sport, Double Red Rome, Early June. They’re the names of varieties of apple that crunchy little sweet/tart paradox that adds $22 million to the local economy each year, defines the landscape and gave birth to Hendersonville’s most famous annual event. From its seeds have risen the parades, floats, committees, games and tourist dollars that take over downtown on Labor Day weekend.
“Actually, the first Apple Festival was the Apple Blossom Festival, and it was in the spring,” Becky Sherman Banadyga was pointing out the other day, a phone clapped to her ear at her family’s store, Sherman Sports on Main Street. The store, in business for 85 years, has been at the epicenter of downtown’s apple-centered enthusiasms since the beginning. Becky was talking on the telephone with her father, Kalman Sherman, son of the store’s founder. After listening some more, she relayed another of her father’s recollections. “He says the festival got switched to the fall because you couldn’t rely on the apple trees to blossom on cue.” Wisely, the city fathers, after that first event of 1938 to mark Henderson County’s centennial, decided to concentrate on the fruit instead of the tree and moved the next year’s celebration to its present date.
Becky is the third generation of Shermans to work in the store and has seen her share of Apple Festivals. So has Jacques, the Banadyga’s Bichon Frisée and the store’s unofficial mascot, who was gazing at a visitor as if he had his own stories to tell about the festival; but it may have been just a wistful look, as he has to be banished to doggie day camp on the weekend of the festival because no dogs are allowed. “We can hardly get out the door on the Saturday and Sunday of that weekend,” said Becky’s husband, Rex, who now manages the store with her. “It’s great for business, which was more the purpose of the event originally, to bring people downtown to shop. Now it’s more of a cultural thing. It’s been a gradual change over the years.”
The growth of the local apple industry itself was rather gradual, the fruit remaining strictly a food source for local farmers after the first cultivated trees were planted before the Revolutionary War by the county’s pioneering European settler, William Mills. Markets where produce could be sold in bulk were too far away and difficult to reach until the coming of the railroad, when Greenville, Spartanburg and Asheville became accessible to rural populations. It wasn’t until early in the last century that apples and other produce began flowing out of the county in enough quantity that by 1936, apples brought about $200,000 a year to local bank accounts and local growers had formed Blue Ridge Apple Growers, which remains a main sponsor of the area’s Apple Festival.
Edneyville became the center of the county’s apple growing, especially when farmer Andy Lyda purchased the first newfangled speed sprayer for the orchards surrounding his famous Bee Hive Inn on Saint Paul Road in 1952. By then, there were 180,000 apple trees bearing fruit in the county and Gerber, the baby food company, had set up a processing plant for apples and other fruit next door in Buncombe County that remained in business until 1998. The old Seneca Juice Company’s plant in Mountain Home remains one of the largest producers of apple juice in the country despite several changes in ownership over the years.
In addition to jobs, another of the apple boom’s side effects was organization. The North Carolina Apple Growers Association sprang into being in 1954, and remains the state’s major promoter of the industry. Its coordinated advertising and marketing campaigns have at times included tourist maps of every apple orchard in the county placed at local service stations, and highway signs declaring Henderson County apples to be “The Best Flavored Apples in the USA.” Today, North Carolina ranks as America’s seventh largest apple producer, with Henderson County apple growers producing 65 percent of all North Carolina apples. Someone over at the Blue Ridge Farm Direct Market Association with a lot of time to spare once figured out that if all those apples were laid two abreast, they’d reach from Hendersonville to Tokyo, and back again.
This might be a good talking point for this year’s Apple Ambassador, Brittney Wilson, a rising senior at East Henderson High School. Brittney will, naturally, ride in the King Apple Parade on Labor Day, but her duties don’t end there. She will be required to meet with Governor Mike Easley and the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture to talk up the importance of apples and to speak at the Southeastern Apple Growers Association’s annual meeting. In return, she will receive a college scholarship from the state’s Apple Growers Association and a gold apple necklace. The scholarship is partially funded by the Association’s three-cents-per-bushel fee charged to growers, which also helps defray the costs of advertising and promotion.
But back to Becky at Sherman Sports, who was reminiscing about past festivals and agreed with Rex that its original purpose was to promote downtown businesses. “All the store owners used to serve breakfast out on the sidewalk, like the Kiwanis Club does now,” Becky remembered. “We set up the tables along the 400 block before the sun came up, and I remember once Roberta Flack was rehearsing. She happened to be performing at Black Mountain that year and came down to sing at the festival. She began singing and playing the piano that morning right at sunrise. It was magical.” Past festivals have presented some less musically sensitive features, like the firing of muzzle-loaded antique guns and a beauty pageant to name Miss Apple Festival. There have been celebrity sightings, network news coverage and visits from state and national dignitaries, all mingling with the estimated 200,000 people who have jammed Main Street in recent years.
It was quieter once, even when the festival lasted for more than a week and, at one point, stretched over ten days. “It was really just a bunch of local non-profits with booths, and businesses along the street having sales and promotional events,” Becky said of those longer, perhaps more serene festivals. The change came in 1988, when the festival was cut back to just the Labor Day weekend, giving it a more easily packaged form for visitors on extended, holiday weekend vacations. Exhaustion may have figured in the decision, too, although squeezing so many activities into four days is hardly tranquil. 150 vendors line the eight blocks of Main Street given over to the festival, there are 12 hours of entertainment every day on the stage set up in the center of the blocks, plus activities for kids, arts and crafts shows, not to mention the King Apple Parade on Labor Day itself, followed by dancing in the street.
Jacques the dog, glumly contemplating his pending Apple Festival exile, was cradled in Becky’s arms as she talked about past highlights. A peculiar thought occurred to her. “You know,” she said, “I don’t remember anyone actually ever selling apples.”