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.
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.
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.
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!