Tiny town at the core of giant apple festival

Darlington: This Harford hamlet of 750 is bracing - and baking - for 50,000 weekend guests.

October 03, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

DARLINGTON - If you see Jim Calcutt driving down Main Street this week, chances are he has some apple pies in his white pickup truck.

The co-chairman of Darlington's Apple Festival isn't the only one ferrying apple fritters, cakes and other goodies from freezers to bake tables this week. Dozens of folks in this Harford County hamlet of 750 are hurrying to get ready for Saturday's expected crowd of 50,000.

"It's just a real country-type thing," said Calcutt, 58. "All the people coming up from the city want to get out in the country for a day."

And they do, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., rain or shine. They come from Baltimore and Philadelphia mainly, pressed together in a mass of fun and confusion along Shuresville Road, which is closed to traffic for the event.

Time was when this festival was just a small fall fling put on by Darlington United Methodist Church. Then in 1986, the festival merged with an annual craft show and things took off. The event became a fund-raiser for local churches, Scouts and other nonprofit groups, some of which make as much as half their annual budgets at the one-day event.

"In the beginning, it was mainly the churches ... and anybody in the community who wanted to get out and sell their apples," said Libby Reeves, a member of Grace Episcopal Church on Route 161. The church plans to have about 75 apple pies, 30 apple cakes, fruit breads and dozens of candied apples for sale at its bake table.

In the early years, the town's half-dozen churches could handle the crowd. But later, "we kept running out of food because that many churches couldn't feed all those folks," Reeves said. So a few commercial vendors have been invited to join local funnel cake, hot dog and pit beef stands. But most of the food is cooked by the hometown crowd.

Today, it's one of Harford County's largest events: 200 crafters start arriving on Friday night. Some sleep in their vans. By 7 a.m. Saturday, they are setting out their wares.

Tom McCurry, owner of a garage on Main Street and one of the festival's founders, said, "By getting so large, we've lost a lot of the small-town charm."

That doesn't seem to slow the flow of visitors, who can make scarecrows, take hayrides, pet farm animals and eat apples - dipped in chocolate, covered with caramel or baked into fritters, dumplings, cookies and pies.

Local churchwomen bake hundreds of pies weeks ahead (except the ones with the crumb crusts that don't freeze well) and stash them in any freezer that has space. Several local orchards donate apples - including Jonagolds, Golden Delicious and Grimes Golden - by the bushel to the bakers.

Family ritual

Calcutt's wife, Margaret Reeves (Libby Reeves' sister-in-law), grew up attending Darlington United Methodist Church. Bakers used to gather in the church kitchen to cook, assembly-line style. But the congregation, which has about 40 members, has gotten older, Reeves said, so they've been baking at home for a few years.

A fire damaged the church last Christmas Eve and reconstruction has hit a few snags, Reeves said, which means the bakers have lost storage space in the church freezer.

On Monday, Reeves, 55, got together with her sisters, Ann, who is 52, and Mary, 65, for their annual pie-baking ritual. Their mother, Catherine, was an active participant until her death two years ago.

Mary is the main apple slicer and chopper. Margaret is the crust maker, and Ann is the sugar-spice and apple mixer. It's a day, Margaret said, when thoughts drift to family and fond memories are shared.

"We talk and laugh a lot," she said, adding, "We eat lunch - and we don't eat anything we make for the Apple Festival."

Up the road at Hosanna African Methodist Episcopal Church on Castleton Road in Berkley, the men of the church were at work Tuesday bringing in all the pies from parish members' freezers that a half-dozen volunteers have baked.

`That's not all ... '

In the fellowship hall, five long tables were laden, some with more than five dozen large pies. Others had hundreds of medium and small pies - and cookies, fudge and three dozen apple cakes. A look in the kitchen freezer revealed about 140 apple dumplings stacked neatly in plastic boxes.

"That's not all of it yet," said Alice Starks, 76, of Street. "When we're finished, we should have somewhere around 250 large pies." The big ones - 8 to 9 inches in diameter - will sell for about $7; medium pies go for $2.50; and small ones - about the size of a fruit tart - for $1.50.

For many years, Starks and fellow parishioner Edith Presberry made all the church's apple wares. "She would make 50 pies and I would make 50 pies. It's grown from that," Starks said.

Cooks of all ages pitch in for the festival. Tuesday evening, Girl Scout Cadette Troop 191 members were huddled in the kitchen of Hopewell United Methodist Church in Level, washing and dipping apples in a thick peanut butter sauce. They were working to coat 500, which they'll sell for $2 each to raise money for a trip.

They also head the scarecrow making and have been collecting donated clothing from churches, schools and thrift shops for months. They will likely use from 35 to 50 bales of hay Saturday to create a small village of 200 scarecrows, said troop leader Belinda Karas.

She said the older girls had a scarecrow-making workshop Monday night to teach new Cadettes what to watch for. Things run pretty smoothly, Karas said, until festival-goers forget to take off their jewelry. In years past, two expensive watches have disappeared in the hay.

"There's a scarecrow with a heartbeat somewhere," Karas said, laughing.

The Apple Festival runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, rain or shine, in Darlington. From Interstate 95, take Exit 89 and head west on Level Road to Route 161 north to Darlington. Parking is provided in lots on the edges of town, and school buses take visitors to the event. Information: 410-457-4189.

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