During the Darlington Apple Festival, a tiny town booms for a single day

At Hosanna African Methodist Episcopal Church in Darlington, the apple chopping, peeling and baking began in earnest in August.

Volunteers for the Wilson Ministry Center will embark on a massive apple, caramel and whipped cream buying spree in the week before the first Saturday in October. That same week, SweetAire Farms’ owner, Art Johnson, will begin picking the seven varieties of apples festival-goers will find at the entrance to the town’s claim to fame: the Darlington Apple Festival.

For nearly two months, various community members, organizations and churches in Darlington set out to purchase, chop, mix and bake, all in preparation for what’s billed as the largest one-day annual event in Harford County. On that day, about 300 vendors and an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 visitors descend on Darlington (population 409, by the last Census count), where the funds raised ensure local nonprofit organizations continue running.

The work begins well before those months, though, for festival chairperson Elaine Calderon and the 17 others on the festival committee. As the date draws near, those volunteer roles can look similar to part-time jobs.

“The main goal of the apple festival is to help our local nonprofit organizations raise funds for the community in a family atmosphere and to give people the chance to enjoy a good old-fashioned day in the country,” says Calderon, who has led the festival for the past nine years. “Darlington is a town where you really have an opportunity to be a part of a community. We’ve known each other for years, and one way to show how we care about each other is to help each other.”

Situated at the edge of Susquehanna State Park, just south of the much-traveled U.S. 1, Darlington is the sort of place most visitors to the area would drive right by without even realizing it was there. Historic stone and white clapboard stores and homes line the three main streets of the unincorporated town, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has its own post office, library and elementary school, while a pharmacy, general store and town mechanic still line Main Street.

At the hamlet’s family-friendly festival, attendees enjoy live entertainment while eating food from one of the festival’s vendors and can shop for craft and arts items from a variety of stalls. There area also kid-centric events like scarecrow making, hayrides, pony rides and sand art. The festival is complete with a contest for the best apple pie and a yearly award handed out to honor a Darlington resident to acknowledge community contributions.

And of course, there are the apples.

Come Oct. 7, Hosanna AME Church’s 250 apple pies, 600 apple dumplings and 50 to 60 apple cakes will be sold out by 3 p.m., and the church will have raised nearly 50 percent of its annual budget from sales.

“We have individuals who actually come to the apple festival looking for our particular stand,” says Helen Chapman, a self-proclaimed worker bee at the church.

By festival’s end, the team of 20 volunteers in the Wilson Ministry Center will have served 1,000 to 1,300 of their signature apple delites — cored apples smothered with caramel and whipped cream. The day’s sales provide anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 to help fund the nonprofit’s operation costs and after-school program.

The festival is a one-day, one-shot event: There is no rain date.

When torrential rains in the days leading up to the 2015 festival forced organizers to cancel, many of the nonprofits found themselves struggling. “That was a very bad year for all the nonprofits in Darlington,” says Georgette Mester, program director for the Wilson Ministry Center.

“We did without, and we did have a small cushion [of money] which got a lot smaller. We can’t afford another rain day. So pray for good weather,” she says of this year’s festival.

For-profit vendors from outside the area are matched with one of Darlington’s nonprofit organizations — like the Lions Club, Dublin-Darlington Recreation Council and Darlington Friends of the Harford County Public Library — and asked to share 20 percent of their profits.

Johnson’s SweetAire Farm, the only fresh apple vendor at the festival this year, provides the fresh apples for the festival each year as it has since the early 1990s, hauling in 90 to 120 bushels – up to of 3 tons – of apples for festival goers.

Johnson was one of the founders of the festival, back when the town’s churches and nonprofit organizations held a variety of fundraisers each year, which raised money largely from town residents.

“So it really just stayed within the town and we weren’t really raising a lot of money for anybody,” Johnson says. “We figured if we could have a festival … we could attract other people in. They would be willing to support some of the things that were going on around the town.”

The first festival in 1986 drew 5,000 attendees. The vendors, which numbered closer to 100, were more scattered, Johnson says. But the festival grew rapidly each year, until it reached its peak by the late 1990s.

It’s the very nature of the town – small and relatively remote – that helped contribute to the fair’s success, organizers say.

“It’s a nice, clean little fair and it appeals to people,” with free entry and activities that appeal to a variety of ages, Johnson says. “It’s a vicarious way of them experiencing what we experience. Here you can see the real small-town, rural area.”

Organizers see no end in sight for the festival, now in its 32nd year. Instead, its future may well rest in the hands of the residents. “We used to have more volunteers,” Calderon says. “The community keeps getting smaller, and it tends to be a handful of volunteers doing everything.”

Still, she envisions a time when the festival might be able to earn enough revenue to donate to the Darlington community organizations directly, rather than just break even as it does now.

For Johnson, who every year participates in a festival whose genesis was in the parking lot of the church he attended, the Darlington Apple Festival is already the town’s crowning achievement.

“Without it, the town would be different,” Johnson says. “It certainly is a big deal for our town, and I think it’s very ambitious for a town our size.”

If you go

Darlington Apple Festival

Saturday, Oct. 7, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Shuresville Road, between Route 161 and Old Quaker Road, Darlington

Follow signs to parking on Route 1; shuttles run to festival. No pets allowed.

Parking cost: $5

darlingtonapplefestival.org

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
39°