Apples benefit Harford town

Festival: Volunteers work hard to make an annual event a main fund-raiser for their community's churches and groups.

October 03, 2004|By Emeri B. O'Brien | Emeri B. O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Usually, Jim Calcutt said, people can drive through the one-stop-sign town of Darlington in a minute and a half. All that changes on the first Saturday of October. That's when the Apple Festival comes to town. On that day, the town with a population of about 750 swells to the thousands.

"It's mind-boggling on Main Street and Shuresville Road," festival organizer Calcutt said. "During the festival, you can't see the pavement. It's wall-to-wall people."

Yesterday's overcast weather might have slightly affected attendance. On a sunny day, the Apple Festival has attracted almost 70,000 people.

But by 10 a.m., the half-mile stretch of Shuresville Road was full of people.

The aroma of apple fritters, pies, fried fish and kettle corn filled the autumn air. Shoppers visited the 320 booths, many of which were selling food. People sat on haystacks outside a makeshift stage and listened to live music. Children rode ponies, and others hitched a ride on the back of a wagon for a trip around a farm.

Darlington native Eric Vacek spent time at the festival with his family, including his 11-month-old godson, Ryan Vacek.

"We are starting a new tradition with him. My grandmother started us coming here. It's just the best way for our family to begin the fall."

Calcutt said the tiny Harford County village's charm is enough to lure folks from Baltimore, Pennsylvania and beyond.

At the core of the all-volunteer event is a drive to keep Darlington thriving. Community churches and organizations are the recipe for the festival's success.

Every year, Art Johnson does his part. Johnson, one of the festival's originators, said the event was created to raise funds to aid nonprofit organizations.

"Before we had the Apple Festival, people went around to people in the town for fund raising," Johnson said. "We decided it was much better if we got outside people to bring money in. The first year we had 5,000 people come here. Now it's 10 times that big." The festival began in the 1980s.

Yesterday, the University of Maryland engineering professor sold apples from his orchard.

To non-apple connoisseurs, an apple is an apple. But Johnson says that isn't accurate. Each variety has its own flavor.

The Westfield Seek-No-Further tastes nothing like the Winter Banana. And don't even think about confusing the Gala Sweet with the Spartan.

For apple pies, Johnson has a favorite. "The Stayman tart," he said. "It's a good pie apple. It has a nice flavor to it. It's tart and hard."

For some of the best apple pies, most in Darlington know to visit the Hosanna A.M.E. Church booth. Helen Chapman's mother, Edith Presberry, was involved with the Apple Festival in its early days.

"We started out with a few pies and a few cakes, and it's swelled to the extent that it's a huge operation," Chapman said. "All women contribute to the process from peeling apples to the whole nine yards."

Hosanna, like the other four churches in Darlington, depends on the festival to help stay afloat. For Darlington United Methodist Church, the sale of apple fritters and cider is crucial. Profits from the Apple Festival supplement the church's budget, Pam Burton said.

Many festivalgoers ended up at the Apple Delight booth, which sold sliced Golden Delicious apples, smothered in caramel and topped with whipped cream.

Rick Howe of Darlington is the Apple Delight man. He said that every bite of the $4 concoction benefits the Wilson Community Center, which holds programs for latchkey kids in Harford.

Howe said he appreciates the support that the Apple Festival receives from curious city dwellers. However, he said, he can't wait to return to small-town life.

"We are a population of under 1,000," Howe said. "We have a bank, a post office, general store and a stop sign. We love people to come. Then we want them to go away."

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