Applefest organizers look back

WELLSBURG – As they prepare for this year’s Wellsburg Applefest, organizers of the annual event, past and present, were asked to look back on its 35 years.

Hundreds of people are expected to turn out for the festival when it returns to the Wellsburg Town Square and Charles Street Oct. 4-6 with a variety of food, entertainment and activities.

Returning to the festival this year is Red McWilliams, a Washington state man who has entertained audiences internationally with his mix of Celtic and folk music.

McWilliams, who will appear at 11 a.m. on Oct. 4, has a local connection – he is a descendant of Thomas Grimes, the Wellsburg farmer and public official who discovered the Grimes Golden apple.

Also appearing is Anna Egan Smucker, a Weirton native and author of “Golden Delicious: A Cinderella Story,” about the discovery of the Golden Delicious apple, a relative of the Grimes Golden, in Clay County, WVa. Smucker will speak at 1 p.m. on Oct. 5 at the Brooke County Museum and Cultural Center on Charles Street.

Dave Britt, one of the event’s two original chairmen, remembers when the festival was a smaller affair, when he and other organizers were still learning how to put together a festival.

“We didn’t know about electricity and water (needed by vendors selling food). We didn’t know much. It was a very good learning experience,” said Britt, owner of a local flower shop.

Britt said in the beginning the festival was held on Friday and Saturday only and Charles Street wasn’t filled with vendors as it is now.

He said he and the late Doris Rawson, who worked then at the Paint and Paper shop owned by Robert Scott Lumber, were the first co-chairmen, recruited by Mary Dawson, an agent with the Brooke County West Virginia University Extension Service.

Dawson suggested a fall festival similar to the Buckwheat Festival in Kingwood, her hometown, would draw people to the city. She suggested the festival capitalize on the discovery of the Grimes Golden variety of apple at a farm off state Route 27 in 1802.

The seeds for the apple are said to have been supplied by the legendary Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman.

The festival offers apples of many varieties served in many ways, including pies sold by the Wellsburg Kiwanis Club; apple butter made by members of the Follansbee Community of Christ Church; and apple cider sold by the glass or jug.

Britt said initially many who owned businesses along Charles Street were apprehensive about the event, but fellow committee member Michael O’Brien, who also owned a business there, helped to put them at ease.

O’Brien said the Applefest’s success can be attributed to many factors, including the quality product of vendors who return each year, the efforts of volunteers and city crews who assist with setup and cleanup and the support of the Wellsburg Chamber of Commerce, West Virginia Division of Tourism and Top of West Virginia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Rita Ramsey, associate chairman for the festival, said when she became involved with the event about 30 years ago, “I did a little bit of everything, including sweeping the streets, and worked up to setting up the vendors.”

Ramsey also oversaw the apple pie bake-off for a time but has given that up to others, including Bill Konkle, who expanded it to include apple dishes in three categories: those made with dough, such as pies; cakes and miscellaneous.

This year he is aided by Alex Koscevic, a Brooke County native and communications assistant for Bethany College. Applications for the contest can be picked up at the Brooke County Public Library, Brooke County West Virginia University Extension office or Brooke County Senior Center.

Ernie Jack, who has served as co-chairman for years, said the Applefest also has changed in the number of children’s activities. In addition to amusement rides, the event includes a pumpkin-decorating contest held by the Brooke County Public Library and a pumpkin-carving contest on the town square.

Jack also is involved in coordinating the assorted entertainment, ranging from local rock and country bands and dance schools to a man carving wood statues with a chain saw and a strolling magician.

The four said the festival has been blessed with pleasant weather in most years.

But O’Brien noted in 2004, the city was devastated by a flood just weeks before the Applefest was slated. He said the Applefest Committee was determined to hold the event, if only to bring some cheer to local residents.

“There were people who said, I suppose you’re not going to have the Applefest,” Jack recalled.

But the National Guard hosed or hauled away about 4 inches of mud washed by the flood onto the town square and city streets, and they were ready in time for the festival, he recalled.

Jack said even in inclement weather, many people turn out for the Applefest, and that faithfulness is appreciated.

“I’ve been down there when there were snow flakes or two or three days of rain, but people just dress accordingly,” he said. “The Wellsburg Applefest is like a homecoming. People come home for the Applefest.”