Grit Blogs > A Lakeside View

Celebrating Those Summertime Blues

By Cindy Murphy

Tags: blueberry, blueberry festival, South Haven,

I live in the area known as Michigan’s Fruit Belt. Orchards and vineyards make up a large part of the countryside, and the small towns throughout celebrate the bounty these crops bring by honoring the various fruits with a myriad of festivals – any reason to throw a party for family, friends, and neighbors is a good one when you live in a small town.

The fruit festival season kicks off early with the Blossomtime Festival in spring; festivals heralding specific fruits follow when the blossoms fall, the fruit forms, and ripens throughout summer. The opening of strawberry season is commemorated with its traditional auction of the first crate of ripe strawberries. It's for bragging rights mostly – for both the grower, and the winner. This year's first case sold for a record $15,200.00. Yep, that many zeros for a crate of strawberries! All the money goes to a charity of the highest bidder's choosing. After strawberry season concludes, comes the International Cherry Pit and Spit Competition, and then the Peach Festival; the ‘Red Haven’ peach was developed right here in South Haven. The Apple Festival, the Wine and Harvest Festival, and the many all-encompassing, whatever-is-left harvest fests, round out the fruit festival season.

Here, in South Haven, blueberry is king, and our contribution to the fruit festival line-up is the National Blueberry Festival – or just “Blueberry Fest,” if you’re a local. South Haven is the Blueberry Capitol of the World, and though the title is a self-proclamation, it might not be too far off the mark. Michigan leads the nation in blueberry production, with much of the fruit coming from this immediate area.

If you happen to miss the blueberry fields on the outskirts of town, our reverence for this fruit is apparent throughout the year once you hit downtown proper. The first thing you’ll see are these tiny, but plump, sweet little morsels of healthful goodness represented in basketball-sized form, nestled amongst other fruit and vegetables on a mural celebrating our agricultural heritage.

South Haven Mural

Directly across the street is The Blueberry Store, where you can get anything blueberry that you can imagine: blueberry scented soaps and candles, recipe books, pottery, clothing, chocolate covered blueberries ... mmmm, blueberry pancake and bread mixes, jams, jellies, syrups, honey, and my favorite – blueberry salsa. And they ship anywhere – the perfect “Taste of South Haven” Christmas gift for out-of-town friends and family.

But it is for four days in early August that the blueberries really take center stage. This year’s 45th Annual National Blueberry Festival, one of four blueberry festivals in Michigan, and approximately 38 in the nation, is one of the longest running blueberry festivals in the United States. An expected 50,000 to 70,000 visitors were estimated to attend this year’s event – that’s quite a small town party!

Here, if blueberry is king, than his court consists of the Blueberry Queen, the Blueberry Prince and Princess, and Little Miss and Mister Blueberry, and they wave to their kingdom high atop a float in the Blueberry Parade. I love small town parades; you can hear them coming for miles away with all the police cars, fire engines, and rescue equipment’s sirens blaring. This year the Coast Guard boats were absent; I wonder if it was because of budget restraints due to higher fuel costs, or if the perfectly gorgeous late summer day kept them busy out on the Lake. The local politicians made their appearance; they always do, and they are joined by local business floats, youth groups, community groups, and the marching bands – the bands are always my favorite.

In addition to the parade, festival activities include a raffle, a 5K run, a sand sculpture contest at the beach, an air-show at the municipal airport, fundraiser dinners, magician shows, a Renaissance group performance, sidewalk sales, and arts and crafts fair and antique flea-market. Down by the public marina, the street running along the channel is blocked off, and a carnival atmosphere is present. The air is perfumed with the heavy, slightly greasy and sweet scent of fair food: corndogs, elephant ears, cotton candy and plates piled high French fries.

The harbor at Blueberry Fest

I almost kept my vow this year to overcome my fear of heights by climbing the rock wall. Though I chickened-out, I redeemed myself on the mechanical bull ... sort of; the bull won, and the only medal I received were the silver stars spinning around my head upon my “artful dismount, Mom!!!” screamed by my daughter who got the whole thing on film.

The public marina lawns are a mass of wall-to-wall blankets and lawn-chairs, and the channel a maze of anchored boats – all there to listen to the nightly live music. As the sun sets over Lake Michigan and dusk arrives, there’s a magical quality in the air. Music plays while Friends Good Will, our town’s sailing pride – a replica of a 19th century tall masted sloop – solemnly and silently completes its last cruise of the night and settles into its dock at the Michigan Maritime Museum. This is all very typical festival stuff, but served up with a slice of local flavor.

And if it’s a slice of flavor you want, there is the Giant Blueberry Pie Social where you can get a piece of blueberry pie served up from huge 40-pound pies made by the local bakery. More than just a slice? Of course there’s a pie-eating contest – what fair would be complete without a pie-eating contest? To start off each day of the festival, there are Blueberry Pancake Breakfasts. At Blueberry Central, culinary skills are displayed in the categories of Main Dishes, Salads, Desserts, Breads/Muffins and Others in the National Blueberry Festival Cook-off. Vendors offer all kinds of jarred products, pies and breads, dried and fresh berries, and blueberry plants.

Blueberry Products

As Blueberry Fest came to a close, and our families made the weekend’s last walk home, my neighbor and I brought up the back of the pack. You see, she held in her hand the festival’s treasure – a five pound box of fresh blueberries. For me, popping handfuls of sweet berries into my mouth is the best way to end the celebration.

There are festivals and fairs like Blueberry Fest going on all across America bringing to light the character of small towns by celebrating their heritage with unique local flavor….whether it be blueberry, strawberry, or peach. Or chocolate? Now a Chocolate Festival! That’s something I could really sink my teeth into!

cindy murphy
8/25/2008 6:44:53 PM

Fred! Your idea of a Valentine's Day Chocolate Festival sounds delicious! But don't forget about cups free hot chocolate after skating under the twinkling lights at the pavillion ice-rink; what could be more romantic? Sounds like a date for you and Susan. (And while you two are sipping hot chocolate, I'll be sneaking your shares of those chocolate covered strawberries.) Thanks for stopping by. Cindy

cindy murphy
8/25/2008 6:38:41 PM

Lacy, one of the things I remember most about camping trips up north during my kidhood, was finding wild blueberry patches - they were lowbush blueberries, and the berries are much smaller than the highbush berries, but oh-so-sweet!!! We always take the girls to the U-Pick Blueberry Farms, but this year we had a bumper mosquito crop - it was probably larger than the blueberry crop, and we ended up not going. My youngest was disappointed; she's a eat-more-than-she-puts-in-the-pail picker. It's a shame, but the apples are coming up soon, and that's always another fun family outing. I'm sure you and your adopted siblings will have a grand time. I'll have to check out your blueberry blog on your site. Lori, I just re-watched the video my daughter took, (laughing the entire time), and I made it fifteen seconds on the bull! It was not a pretty sight, I can tell you. Coincidentally, the first and only other time I rode a mechanical bull was at another small town festival we went to while visting friends in North Carolina. Another unpretty sight that time too, but my Fifteen Minutes of Fame lasted however long it took to be thrown; a photographer caught a shot of me, and it's used on the festival brochere. (at least I was not in my caterpillar hunting outfit!)

8/25/2008 11:02:54 AM

Cindy, your blueberry fest sounds like a wonderful time! We love blueberries, (is there anyone that doesn't?), but my hubby is especially fond of them. We have a couple blueberry bushes of our own and I usually make blueberry jam with them. Yummy on homemade bread! How many seconds did you make it on the bull?

fred bachman
8/25/2008 10:08:19 AM

Cindy, I just read your article about the Blueberry Festival and it was a "visitor-convention bureau" award winning treat to pull people to South Haven, Michigan. Since chocolate is your "Sweet" choice maybe the Hershey company could help you sponsor a new South Haven festival. Here is another suggestion - a Valentine Day festival featuring: chocolate, chocolate dipped strawberries, and wine that fares well with Chocolate. Happy writing - Fred Bachman

razor family farms
8/24/2008 2:31:16 PM

I love fresh blueberries! In fact, I wrote an entire blog post (on my site) about the trip to th blueberry patch and how much I want to share that experience with the sibling group we are in the process of adopting. Like hank, blueberry buckle is one of my all-time most favorite things to eat. I make our buckle in a cast iron skillet... and then devour it while still warm from the oven. Heavenly! What a fun festival! Blessings! Lacy NEWS at Razor Family Farms (

cindy murphy
8/22/2008 6:30:08 PM

Debbie - enjoy your Michigan blueberries! And I'm sure it won't be long before you're enjoying those from your own yard too. Good luck.

8/21/2008 8:47:01 PM

Cindy - Great post! I also planted several blueberry plants this year. My dilemma is I live here and want to plant down south and worry if plants will make it without me there. So the blueberries I purchased here needed to be in the ground (I could tell) so I took them down and planted them. I hope they hang in there ... now I know who to ask about Blueberries! p.s. picked some up at the grocery store today and guess where they were from??? Michigan!

cindy murphy
8/21/2008 6:19:22 PM

Hi, Hank. I've never had it, but I understand my boss makes a killer blueberry buckle. I'll have to see if I can have her whip up a batch. My Mom's blueberry pancakes are legendary...uhm...infamous, I guess is a better word; her recipe would do good in a cookbook - one titled 'Culinary Mishaps", I think would suit her pancakes just fine. One year Dad and Mom picked both blueberries, and concord grapes - enough to freeze quite a bit of both. Making blueberry pancakes one morning, she kept commenting how big the blueberries were. The looks on our faces biting into concord grape pancakes was one of those 'had to be there' moments. Poor Mom - it was the visit I brought my not-yet husband home to meet my family, and twenty-some years later, he's never let her live that one down. Regarding your not the greatest looking blueberry bushes: if you haven't done it already, do a simple soil test. Blueberries prefer an acidic soil, with a pH between 4.5 and 5.0. If your soil is too alkaline, add garden sulphur at the rate on the package according to how many plants you have and how big the area. A good slow-release fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants in the fall, after the leaves have dropped, and again in the spring will help too. A nice organic slow-release that works well for blueberries is Hollytone made by Espoma.

hank will_2
8/21/2008 8:15:11 AM

Hey Cindy -- I love blueberries, especially in pancakes, and buckle. When I was a kid, my mother would make the most awesome blueberry buckle. We would consume it, along with a big thermos of coffee on the way to the wholesale produce market at 4:00 in the morning. I planted blueberry bushes this year in Kansas. They don't look the greatest, but I hope they will really turn on next year.