That was the year Lee Chapman came into the chamber office raving about the beauty of the Franklin area. “She just started going on and on about the beauty of the area and why don’t you have a celebration,” recalled then-chamber administrative assistant Teresa Russell.
They matched her ideas with the long-range committee’s focus on the economy and invited her to present to the group. “She had many good ideas that day, but one grew,” Russell noted of the Aug. 29 meeting.
That one would become known as Applefest.
The committee decided to put on a three-hour event in connection with homecoming, which meant putting together the first Applefest in just a little over a month. The first year featured an apple pie baking contest, a performance by the Franklin High School marching band and Chapman’s son, Michael John Chapman, not to be confused with Johnny Appleseed Chapman, handing out apples among the crowd.
And it just continued to grow.
“I’m just amazed at what Applefest has become,” Venango County commissioner Mike Dulaney said. He has experienced the festival from nearly all sides – chamber employee, small business employee, volunteer, event co-chair, local leader, and elementary school student.
“I remember in elementary school thinking ‘I don’t know what Applefest is, but I love it’,’ Dulaney recalled on growing up in the 1990s and getting Friday of the festival off from classes. “It shows you what an effect it was already having in just 10 years.”
That was the intention of the original chamber committee that gave the green light for the festival – to create an economic impact that engaged the community, Russell said, noting that the second part was just as important as the first.
As the festival grew in the early years, the chamber reached out to schools, churches, service organizations, businesses and other groups to assist with needs and host events. Among those early efforts were the dance, BBQ dinners, wooden apple decorating contest, pie and dumpling sales, and, of course, the pancake breakfast.
Russell remembers the first breakfast was in 1986 and drew a crowd of 600 people. “It was a very, very big deal.”
It was the very next year that Williams joined the volunteer group that would later be known as the CORE committee.
“The year I got involved was the year we moved the festival from the feed mill,” Williams said of one of his earliest Applefest memories. “It (Applefest) was small enough at the time that we could move it… indoors, if you could imagine that.”
He recalled the times when the Kiwanis would grill chicken in the park and the car show was about new instead of vintage and class vehicles. “As it has gotten bigger, some of these events had to go away.”
That openness to change and flex from year to year has helped the festival stay relevant, Dulaney said. “We know what’s at stake with this festival and we all care about it deeply,” he said of the planning process, which takes thousands of manhours each year.
They consider each year what needs to stay on the schedule, what should be changed or modified and what should be replaced. This attitude has led to things such as a pogo stunt show on 12th Street, a wedding on Liberty Street, and draft horse rides.
That attitude, along with an army of volunteers to implement whatever is needed, is what has kept Applefest as the Best Three Days of the Year as it approaches four decades of success in downtown Franklin.
“I’ve run into people out West who ask where I am from and then say ‘Isn’t that where Applefest is?’,” Dulaney said. His favorite part of Applefest is Sunday morning watching the cars rolling into the show just as the fog is lifting and the sun is rising.
For Williams it is “The two years we were able to score the Budweiser Clydesdales – that was confirmation that this (Applefest) was a big deal.”
Looking back at 40 years of festivals is quite a trip, but one thing is immediately undeniable - “How much impact our three-day festival has had on the town and the region in general,” Williams said. “That trickle-down effect that goes through the community… is like a second Christmas.”
That includes the not-for-profits just as much as the businesses, Russell said. “It’s just been such a wonderful thing for Franklin because so many people benefit from it.”
“I’m hoping for 40 more,” Dulaney said.