Bayfield Apple Festival returned to full strength this year after a pared-down 2020 due to COVID-19. (Photo by JT Cestkowski)
Bayfield Apple Festival returned to full strength this year after a pared-down 2020 due to COVID-19. (Photo by JT Cestkowski)

The fall mainstay returns for its 59th year along the shores of Lake Superior.

After being dramatically scaled back in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bayfield’s Apple Festival returned to form with great fanfare this past weekend, drawing a crowd of thousands. Attendees, including many young families, hoped to pluck a bushel, turnover, pie, or dumpling to take home with them along with a basket of pleasant memories.

The three-day event sees dozens of vendors take over the community’s downtown along the Lake Superior shoreline each year in the early fall. Live music, a parade, and, of course, plenty of apple treats are on offer.

An estimated 50,000 people attend the fete each year, according to the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce. For the past 59 years, the tradition has become a marker of fall’s arrival, this year coinciding with the peak of autumn colors in the Northwoods.

The festival is an annual celebration of the area’s many orchards, and the locally owned produce purveyors get prime placement at the celebration. More than one vendor referenced how their family roots are sunk deep into the tree groves.

Jane Cain staffed Apple Hill Orchard’s caramel apple stand with her daughter and 4-year-old granddaughter. “For me, I’ve really just been enjoying watching my daughter and my granddaughter work together side-by-side with me,” she said. “Memories, we’re building memories.”

Cars parked on every available curb. Thousands crowded downtown. The fire department led the parade along Rittenhouse Avenue. Tours took groups to the orchards outside of Bayfield. Apple Festival seemed to be back with all of its small-town charms and splendor. 

A young festival-goer looks at a candy-covered apple at the 2021 Bayfield Apple Festival. (Photo by JT Cestkowski)

Despite so much feeling familiar to previous festivities, pandemic accommodations still brought some limited changes to the event. Gone were the apple pie and dessert contest. The senior pie social had been pruned, as had the carnival. All measures had come with input from the county health department, the chamber of commerce said. 

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The public health concessions were generally noted by those in attendance as minor when considering the alternatives of ignoring COVID-19’s continuing toll or not holding the event at all.

“After not having Apple Fest last year, it’s been sensational for all of the orchards around,” Cain said. “So, it’s been a real nice community supportive event.”

The theme of community underpins almost every element of the celebration. In a town that could on any random day serve as a Mayberry stand-in, neighbors enjoyed the crowds from their porches that overlook the lake. 

As part of a display of Americana which would have been nauseating had it not been so damn charming, the school band (which may as well have been conducted by Harold Hill) escorted the Grand Marshall and Apple Queen along the parade route. The red, white, and blue uniforms with matching hat plumage was the cherry on top of this star-spangled Sunday.

Friendly faces and friendlier dogs made up the bulk of the crowd. Conversations between perfect strangers spontaneously sparked and combusted into four-alarm gregarious chit-chat over the wonderful taste of the apple brats and apple chili. The pleasant demeanor and good spirits seemed fueled by the general atmosphere of Bayfield and the Apple Festival rather than alcohol. But also probably by some alcohol.

Despite the hive of activity in downtown Bayfield, the chamber of commerce called the apple orchards surrounding the community the sites of the “true celebration.” The area boasts 14 apple and berry orchards.

Thousands packed downtown Bayfield for the city’s 59th annual Apple Festival. (Photo by JT Cestkowski)

Hollie Lawrence with Hauser’s Superior View Farm noted that Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands can be seen from the groves, making for a splendid visual of which one couple took full advantage. In a first for the farm, the trees shaded a marriage proposal this year.

This reporter took a break from his work to savor watching the apple of his eye—his wife—bite into a complimentary fruit along the lake shore. After all, no apple gala would be complete without the taste of a Gala apple.