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Apple Harvest Festival celebrates 50 years in Amherst
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Apple Harvest Festival celebrates 50 years in Amherst

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Amherst County’s Apple Harvest Festival is returning this month for a landmark event after being canceled last year for the first time in its 50-year history due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Amherst’s annual Apple Harvest Festival. The milestone, celebrating half a century in the community Oct. 16-17, coincides with a change in organizers as the women who began organizing the festival decades ago passed the torch to new individuals.

Tobey Thurston, an Amherst County resident and part of the Amherst High School Parent Teacher Organization, was this year’s primary organizer, learning from the most recent festival co-organizer, Gail Simms.

One of the oldest festivals in Amherst County, the Apple Harvest Festival began in 1970, Simms said. Some local orchards and artisans decided to organize a community event where they could share and promote their products.

The two-day event grew year after year, outgrowing the old Dillard’s Packing Shed and the Amherst Ruritan Club before setting up at Amherst County High School, where it has been held for at least the last 40 years, Simms said.

Simms first attended the event in 1974 with her three-month-old son.

In 1996, Simms and her friend, Shelby Penn, became the primary coordinators of the event. Both women were part of the Amherst Association for Family and Community Education, formerly the Amherst Extension Homemakers Association. One of their goals as organizers was to get the festival to 50 years.

“It was a lot of work, but I tell you, it was the most rewarding work that I think we’ve all done over the years,” Simms said.

Simms brought the mission of supporting community education and meeting various needs of community members together with the Apple Harvest Festival; the event served as a fundraiser every year for the club she was part of, Simms said.

Now 72, Simms said it was time to pass the festival on to someone else. In 2019, she and Penn transitioned organization of the event to Thurston and the Amherst High School PTO.

While it feels bittersweet relinquishing organizational duties, Simms is confident the future of the event is in capable hands. She said she also looks forward to enjoying the festival as an attendee this year.

“It’s going to be really exciting to see what’s going to go on from there,” Simms said.

Since the festival is held at the high school, Thurston’s goal was to get students more involved. There had been some student volunteerism in the past, but this year features heavy student involvement, she said.

“Because the parent teacher organization is taking it over, we are trying to focus more on the school, and highlighting school activities, school clubs,” Thurston said. “We’re just really trying to spotlight the awesome students and teachers we have in our school system.”

Performances by different school groups, including the marching band, theater department, choir, and Amherst Dance Academy will be held in the high school’s auditorium, Thurston said.

The high school’s inclusion class will sell apple pies, and sports team members will assist with setting up and tearing down for the event. Art students will offer face painting, and varsity cheerleaders will do a raffle, Thurston said.

This year’s festival will also benefit Amherst Cares, a group that collects non-perishable food and puts together bags that are handed out to more than 300 food insecure students in the Amherst County public schools system each week to support them through each weekend. Festival attendees who bring at least one item from a food list Thurston will share online will be entered into a raffle, Thurston said.

In honor of the landmark 50-year festival anniversary, two new activities are included in this year’s festival lineup, Thurston said: a car show on Sunday, and a petting zoo on site.

The festival has about 150 vendors registered, Thurston said, a slightly higher number than normal. Artists and crafters will sell handmade items largely themed for fall and winter. Many vendors have participated for at least 30 years, she added.

There will be food vendors, crafters and artisans, and, of course, apples and apple-based treats for sale at the festival.

“Apple [Harvest] Festival is always oriented with everybody in mind,” Simms said. “It was just really, really a good thing to do on a weekend.”

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