HICKORY – Raindrops were falling on Kathy Farner’s head Saturday morning.
“It rained for about 15 minutes, and I got nervous,” she said a little after noon, two hours after what she described as “a drip” passed through Mt. Pleasant Township, casting a metaphorical cloud over the Hickory Apple Festival.
The drip quickly dissipated, however. Farner didn’t have to do any talking to the sun after all.
Brilliant skies, good times and apples, apples everywhere reigned on the first day of the 34th annual festival, staged as always on the cavernous grounds of Mt. Pleasant Volunteer Fire Company. The festival benefits the department’s stations in Hickory and Southview.
A steady stream of patrons, many of whom endured a steady stream of traffic along Route 50, had bushelfuls of fun upon arrival. They varied from newcomers to longtime festivalgoers who consider this event to be the apple of their eye.
“I’ve been coming here since I was born, and so has Ashlin,” said Marianne Hawkinberry of Hickory, who was accompanied by her daughter and Marianne’s 9-month-old son, Axton. Ashlin is the reigning Washington County Fair queen.
“(The festival) is exactly the same as I remember it, except it has grown,” Marianne added.
Megan Hursh is originally from northeastern Pennsylvania, but moved to Canonsburg when her husband, Richard, became a teacher in Fort Cherry School District. She had been to the festival, but missed it in recent years before returning Saturday with her daughter, Annie, 17 months.
“Now that I have a little girl, I had to bring her,” Megan said. “It’s a nice day for young kids and grown-ups alike.”
Spouses Robert and Ann Post, who were buying bags of apples separately, were festival rookies. They live in Fort Washington, a suburb of Philadelphia, but were in the region visiting their daughter at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.
“It was family weekend, and she wanted to leave campus,” Ann said. “We heard about the Hickory Apple Festival from a friend who saw how motivated the people are, and said there’s bluegrass and all these apples. We realized this must be a fun event.”
On the other side of the tables, selling apples and explaining differences in the varieties, stood three generations of the Engel-Clark clan. Mary Jane Engel, Sally Clark and Sally’s daughter, Ashley, have collectively made more than 60 appearances at the festival. They all smile easily, inspiring punsters to say they are as American as apple pie.
Mary Jane, 87, has volunteered at 33 of the 34 Hickory festivals. She missed once, the year her mother died. In addition to selling the bags, the family matriarch spends hours in the kitchen making pies and apple crisp for the festival.
“This was a lot smaller event at first,” Engel said, reflecting to the mid-1980s. “It’s been more organized every year. … Boy, when you have a day like this, it’s great. Usually, we have one good day and one bad day.”
The festival is the fire department’s top fundraiser of the year. Farner and her husband, Gary, essentially run the show, which includes a mountain of preparation.
“What makes this festival unique,” she said, “is all the food is prepared by volunteers and sold by volunteers. It takes an army of people.”
That “army” consists of 300 to 400 diligent workers, Gary estimated. And blessed are the pie-makers, who in five days in September made 1,650 of them. Volunteers, he added, also made 91 “big trays of apple crisp.”
Warm weather enhanced the atmosphere Saturday, but Gary Farner said the festival typically attracts formidable crowds. “My estimate is always 10,000 to 15,000, but when you don’t charge (admission), it’s a guess.”
Day 2 will resume around 8:30 this morning and run until about 5 p.m. for more good times.
“If you talk to people,” Gary Farner said, “they like it because it’s a true family festival. There are no commercial vendors, it’s in the country, we always have a country band and an oldies band. There is a lot of fun.”
And a massive bunch of apples.