by Cathryn-Aleigha Grandchamp
Peter Dougherty planted the first cherry trees on Old Mission Peninsula in 1852 and they did great. This gave others inspiration to start planting as well. 1893 was when the first commercial tart cherry orchards were planted on Ridgewood farm, this was close to where Dougherty’s original plantings were.
In the early 1900s the cherry industry was firmly established and soon commenced shipping to Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee. The United States cherry industry produces more than 650 million pounds of tart and sweet cherries each year and Michigan is about seventy-five percent of the tart cherry crop. Traverse City is the also claimed to be the “Cherry Capital of the World”.
“The Blessing of the Blossoms” was the original name of the Traverse City’s Cherry Festival. Farmers wished for a bountiful crop, so they tried to appeal to the gods. By 1910 it turned into a tradition. The farmers would get together and ask for the priest to bless their crops. Farmers would do this every year. As time went on, cherry trees became more and more popular to plant since they grew well in the area. With how many cherries Traverse City produced and planted the ceremony grew, too. By 1925, the merchants and cherry growers came converged and to promote the cherry business, they formed the “Blessing of the Blossoms Festival”.
A Cherry Blossom Queen contest even came of the festival. The first festival on May 22, 1925, Gertrude Brown became the first ever Cherry Blossom Queen. Marching bands, cars, fifty-two floats made from trucks that were decorated, wagons, and war veterans helped make up the parade that went through downtown Traverse City. The newsreel captured it all. The following year, in the first official festival, in 1926, the Cherry Blossom Queen would be voted for. Out of twenty-six other candidates, Charlotte Kearns won. She even had a parade held for her, however, it was delayed forty-five minutes because the cameras and newsreel had not arrived yet. This same year, President Calvin Coolidge was given a pie baked by Hawkins Bakery of Traverse City that contained over 5,000 cherries and was three feet in diameter.
The success of the cherry festival made the city officials turn it into a three day event in 1930. That year President Herbert Hoover visited. The following year in 1931 the state legislature turned it into a national celebration. However in 1942, the celebration was suspended because of the war. It was celebrated in 1948 and every year since.
The National Cherry Festival was changed to a five day event in 1964 and into a week long in 1968. Gerald Ford attended in 1975 and acted as Grand Marshall for the parade. It really started gaining popularity in 1978 when the United States Air Force Thunderbirds performed for the first time. And in 1987 the world record was broken for the world’s largest cherry pie. It was seventeen feet, six inches in diameter and weighed 28,350 pounds.
Later on the festival was moved from May to June and lastly to the first week of July to coincide with Independence Day. The festival’s annual attendance is over 500,000 people. There are over 150 (eighty-five percent of which are free) events held including pit-spitting, pie-eating contests, turtle races, etc. Traverse City’s cherry festival is a major power to the local economy having brought in twenty-six million dollars to the area. Their sources of income are event sponsors, local membership, and ticket sales. The operation of the festival relies mostly on volunteers and entails a minimum of 35,000 volunteer hours and 10,000 staff hours each year. There is eight nights of Bayside Music and visits from the Blue Angels.
Today the Traverse City Cherry Festival includes stuff for everyone to enjoy. There are still pie eating contests, now there are classic car shows, a golf contest, etc. Golfers try at a million dollar hole-in-one. The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds are also still performing.
Overall Traverse City, Michigan’s National Cherry Festival Is probably the biggest event here in the state and The Cherry Capital of the World. It is a major place of tourism and fun. Hopefully it will get to continue for another century.