Despite threatening skies and occasional showers, visitors crowded the streets of Darlington yesterday to pay tribute to their favorite fruit at the rural Harford County village's ninth annual autumn apple extravaganza.

The Darlington Apple Festival has become a regional rite of fall where the apples are red and golden, fresh and crisp, dipped in caramel and rolled in nuts, baked in pies and cooked in cakes.

Visitors attend the festival for the apples as much as the small-town atmosphere kept alive by village residents.

"Our big emphasis is just a nice family day," said June Griffith, vice chairwoman and organizer of the festival. "We're very church-oriented and this is the kind of thing that people are looking for."

Once every year, Shuresville Road, which runs through the center of town, is closed to traffic for the day and lined with stands where local churches and community organizations sell homemade baked goods and luncheon fare.

Attractions include baskets and truckloads of freshly picked apples, blooming chrysanthemums carpeting the street in a rainbow of colors, bunches of Indian corn hanging neatly in rows.

"We come every year for the crafts," said Lisa Pomraning of White Hall, who was with her mother, Sandra Chandler of Jarrettsville, and her 5-month-old son Ethan.

Undaunted by the weather, festival-goers donned plastic rain hats and coats or carried umbrellas as they strolled through town past antiques, crafts and foods. Some sought shelter from the rain under the trees lining the road, happily crunching into caramel apples or sampling cups of homemade vegetable soup and bowls of chili.

Festival workers raised their own umbrellas and spread plastic tarps to keep their goods dry.

"The festival attracts a lot of people into the community," said Wendell Baxter, a member of the Darlington Volunteer Fire Company who was busy selling vegetable soup and pit beef. "I think they all have a good time and I think the exhibitors look forward to it."

"I love everything here," said Russell Richardson of Havre de Grace, a volunteer who was helping to park cars. "It's really a beautiful outing. I come here especially to get apples to take back to the kids."

For the second year in a row, the apple festival played host to the Maryland State Jousting Championship, which was held on a nearby farm field. Riders from all over the state gathered to "ride for the rings" -- competing to spear tiny rings with their lances as they raced on horseback through arches along an 80-yard track.

"This is a sport that most people don't get a chance to appreciate," said Mark Ruby of Havre de Grace, who was judging the horses and riders for costuming. "I love it. It's really great."

"It's a competitive sport where the people are all out here to have fun," added his wife, Gretchen Ruby, veterinarian for the event.

Five-year-old Shayne Virts, riding under the name of The Knight of the Dragon, trotted down the field on his mount, Brandy.

His relatives, who all are jousters, cheered as the Frederick County kindergartner speared all three rings.

"Yeah!" Shayne shouted jubilantly. "That felt great!"

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