FORT WAYNE — The light is softer, the air is crisper, and farm fields start to change from green to gold. Autumn begins Sept. 23, but the Johnny Appleseed Festival heralds the arrival of fall the weekend before.
The festival will be open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Now in its 45th year, the festival is still located at the place where it all started, Johnny Appleseed Park/Archer Park, just south of the Memorial Coliseum.
The festival pays homage to Johnny Appleseed (real name John Chapman), a pioneer who planted appleseeds throughout the Midwest and supposedly died in Fort Wayne. A grave site on a hill at the park is supposedly where he’s buried, but nobody’s really sure — and festivalgoers don’t really seem troubled by any such question.
Festival organizers have added a new event this year: The Johnny Appleseed 5K Run/Walk. It begins at 7 a.m. Sunday in the park and follows the Rivergreenway over the river to the Purdue University Fort Wayne campus. Registration has closed for this event.
Starting off the day with a run might not be a bad idea — afterward you can indulge guilt-free in a variety of pioneer era foods, both sweet and savory.
Follow your nose to the delicious smells wafting up from the various vendors’ sites, where they’re preparing food over open fires. You won’t find fried Twinkies or carnival-style junk food here. Think chicken and dumplings, ham and beans, or turkey legs.
Of course the dessert offerings are heavy on the apple theme: apple dumplings, apple fritters, caramel apples … you’ll have a tough time deciding. Oh, and by the way, the caramel corn, prepared over an open fire, is worth waiting in line for.
Speaking of food, the Farmers Market area has a nice selection of home-grown fruits and vegetables, not to mention apple cider. You’ll also find mums, dried flowers, Indian corn, gourds and pumpkins for fall decorating.
Perhaps the craft booths are the real stars of the festival. You’ll find handmade crafts made from natural materials — linens and fabric, wood, metal, clay and glass. Wreaths, jewelry, stoneware, textiles, holiday decorations — something is bound to catch your eye. Patience is a virtue as customers squeeze in and out of booths.
If you’re looking for items that come with a history, not to mention the patina of age, look for the antiques and primitives shopping area. Maybe you’ll find a piece of furniture or an item that brings back fond memories of the past.
Five stages scattered throughout the festival provide free entertainment. And look out when you’re walking around and please step out of the way of the roving fife and drum corps.
Kids’ activities are a big part of the festival, including a straw maze and an area where they can get their faces painted. Old-fashioned games, such as the ring toss, are a nice way to remind kids of how children had fun in the era before electronics. Kids discover they can get their thrills on primitive rides built by Boy Scouts — no flashing lights or generators needed.
Just down from the kids’ area is the military encampment, where the emphasis is on the uniforms and equipment of the Civil War. Other time periods are represented as well, such as the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
And if you go to the far west end of the park, by Parnell Avenue, you’ll see the Trappers ‘n’ Traders area. These re-enactors portray life in the mid-1800s, complete with tents, campfires and items that were sold or traded during that era.
One aspect of the festival that makes it so special is the attention given to making it an authentic mid-1800s experience. Vendors must abide by strict rules, including:
- No use of plastic or styrofoam containers.
- Signs must be made of wood, tin or brass, but not cardboard.
- Crafts must be handmade.
- No cash registers are allowed. Calculators and charge card apparatus must be concealed.
- Period costumes must be worn by all participating in the festival.
- Buttons are discouraged, as they were used rarely on women’s clothing of that time period.
- Shawls or capes were to be worn in cold weather. No Gor-Tex!