By Kendal Groner
Imagine any apple flavored dessert or baked good and chances are it was at the 40th Annual Unicoi Apple Festival that was held this weekend. More than 100,000 attendees flocked to the streets of downtown Erwin in search of the best apple pies, gourmet apples, apple butter, apple turnovers and of course plenty of fresh, crisp apples from local farmers.
There were clear skies and warm weather as people made their way through the crowds to check out more than 350 craft and food booths, three entertainment stages and a fun-filled children’s area.
“Weather always plays a huge role in the festival. When we have good weather we always have good crowds,” said Amanda Delp, Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce executive director. “Our attendance was definitely more than last year. I would say based on an early projection that we are well over 100,000.”
Between the live bands, the YMCA sponsored children’s area, countless handmade crafts and boutique booths and food vendors selling everything from barbecue to funnel cakes, there was something of interest for everyone at the festival.
Laryn Hurley, a Johnson City resident, has been attending the festival for a few years now. However, she says this year has been the best one yet.
“It has rained every year I’ve attended except for this year. This was the first year I feel like I saw the festival at it’s full potential,” she said. “I was blown away at the size of the event. There was so much to see and eat. I was really impressed that it’s a nationally-known festival based on talking to several vendors who travel all over the country and make sure not to miss it each year. I saw a lot of talented craftsmanship.”
David Cornett, from Just Herbs, Inc in Abingdon, Virginia, has been a vendor at the festival since 1982. As numerous festival goers filled his booth full of culinary herbs, spice blends and custom dips, he reminisced on his time spent at the festival over the years.
“I’ve really gotten to see this event grow over the years, and this is probably some of the best weather and one of the best turnouts that I’ve seen,” Cornett said. “It’s a good place for me to market some of my products. Some of the herbs that I’m selling are things I’ve grown. What we can’t grow we import from organic growers all over the world. I have saffron from Spain, Hungarian paprika, garlic cloves from California … but we do all of the blending and recipe making ourselves.”
According to Delp, there was a good response to the entertainment, particularly the bands on the main Gay Street Stage. The Primitive Quartet, a returning favorite who performed on the Love Street Stage, also garnered positive feedback from the community.
In addition to musical entertainment, the Gathering Place Park Stage held the announcements for the various cooking and apple dumpling contest winners as well as several educational presentations from organizations such as Friends of Rocky Fork and Partners of the Cherokee Forest.
“We have had a lot of activity and we’ve just been selling T-shirts and trying to fundraise for Rocky Fork State Park. We have individual, student and family memberships,” said Marie Rice, Unicoi County Commission chairwoman. “Attending the Apple Festival has definitely helped with our membership numbers.”
For Donna and Cole Wallace from Bryson City, North Carolina, this was the couple’s first year as vendors at the festival. Their booth, “Gourds Galore” featured dozens of beautiful hand painted gourds that could be used as birdhouses or decorations.
“This was my wife’s idea actually. I was recovering from a stroke, and my therapist recommended that I find something to do to get my hand-eye coordination back,” Cole said. “It started out as just something to do, but then my neighbors and friends saw them hanging at my house and wanted to buy them. Then I got the idea to take them to the festival.”
“Many of the vendors sold out of their products. … many of the craft vendors said they had a great year,” Delp said. “Some of the pottery vendors did exceptional, and one vendor selling candles was sold out by midday on Saturday. Many of the food court vendors did more business than they expected as well. One food vendor selling blooming onions actually went through over 1,400 onions trying to keep up with demands, several hundred more than he typically brings.”
Many of the craft and food vendors experienced their most successful year at the festival this past weekend, according to Delp. Several new vendors attended and more than 90 percent of the vendors have already renewed their spot for next year, making it the highest renewal rate in the festival’s history, Delp also said.