By Mike Jones

HICKORY – Three years ago, some people wondered if the Hickory Apple Festival was nearing the end of its 35-year run as some of its longtime organizers were getting older and began stepping aside.

But Jessie Merckle and Ashley Clark stepped up into leadership roles as co-chairs of the festival committee, and the annual event thrived in 2019.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world, prompting fairs and festivals to be canceled with questions about when it would be safe for people to gather again.

With that in mind, Merckle and Clark began planning this year’s festival, unsure if they would have to cancel it again as coronavirus cases began surging this summer.

“Sometimes we joke that we haven’t planned a ‘normal’ year yet,” Clark said. “The first year we were learning the ropes. The second year, when we thought we’d have a better idea (how to plan), COVID hit and everything is different. Then this year you’re forced to think of things in a different way to ease anything related to COVID. It’s definitely been interesting.”

But despite all the hurdles, the festival will be held as scheduled Oct. 2 and 3 at the Mt. Pleasant Volunteer Fire Company’s parking lot and field behind the fire hall along Route 50.

The majority of the festival will be familiar to frequent visitors. However, some events typically held indoors – such as the craft show that is usually inside the community center – have been moved to the grassy field. The children’s carnival rides have been replaced with kids’ shows and sand art, while handheld foods have been replaced with other items. Masks will be optional for the primarily outdoor festival.

“We spread things out with less touch points,” Merckle said.

But the festival will continue with many of the characteristics that have made it a favorite for the Hickory community and beyond. What’s most important, both women said, is that it’s the community that comes together to make sure the festival is a success with homemade food and local crafts being sold, along with volunteers who have been helping for years.

“The bulk of who brings this festival to life is our community and I think it gets everyone thinking that it’s going to be OK. Things might be a little different, but it’s going to be OK,” Clark said. “There were concerns about not having it last year. You’re grateful for the chance to bring it back to life.”

It’s an event that’s been happening in Hickory since 1983, making it a part of the fabric of the community. Even with some of the safety protocols in place, the organizers hope this 37th festival will help bring a return of normalcy to all of our lives.

“It’s held a special place in our hearts. It’s a way to connect with people that social media can’t offer. Grabbing that apple pie and being together,” Merckle said. “It was very missed last year. I think everyone is very excited to have it back this year.”

The pancake breakfast begins on Saturday and Sunday at 7 a.m., while the vendor booths open at 10 a.m. Food is in the upper lot, and organizers expect to have more than a hundred crafters selling their items in the field below. There also will be various entertainment on the two stages, including a pie-eating contest and the band Ruff Creek.

“There’s just something for everyone to do,” Merckle said.

As usual, parking at designated lots and fields in Hickory is free, along with the shuttles that bring people to the festival. The event is also free, and proceeds from food sales at the festival help to support the Mt. Pleasant Township VFC.

After canceling the festival in 2020, Clark thinks this year’s event will be especially meaningful for the community.

“When we couldn’t have our festival, a lot of people who were a part of it were talking about that nostalgia during what would’ve been the festival weekend,” Clark said. “Just going a year without having it makes you grateful for having it again, and it kind of rejuvenates your spirits a little bit.”

More information on the Hickory Apple Festival can be found online at hickoryapplefest.com.

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