Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 29, 2013

Woman, 94, recalls early years of festival

BY ANGIE JACKSON ajackson@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Betty Wheelock recalls large horses that pulled “beautiful” floats down Front Street during the National Cherry Festival in the 1920s, a big deal for “just a little country girl.”

Back then the floats rolled down Front Street to what’s now Division Street and back and weren’t as glamorous as today’s versions. Still, the parade and big horses seemed very impressive to onlookers.

“Of course, we had horses on the farm, but they weren’t anywhere near those. They were beautiful,” said Wheelock, 94, who grew up on a farm near Long Lake and this week reminisced about the festival’s early days. “I’m sure we went almost every year.”

Wheelock was about 7 years old when she had an early taste of cherry fest. She thinks she attended the first festival in 1925, when it was a one-day event in May called Blessing of the Blossoms.

She and her family packed lunches and claimed a spot on Front Street to watch floats roll by. Wheelock doesn’t remember many other activities during the festival’s early years. But she returned each year and eventually introduced her four children to “the hoopla.”

Blessing of the Blossoms reigned for two years, then took a one-year hiatus in 1927, likely because organizers changed their minds about how to run the event and scrambled for time, said Maddie Buteyn, events and exhibit coordinator for the History Center of Traverse City. It became the Michigan Cherry Festival in 1928, then the National Cherry Festival in 1931.

The town focused on helicopter blade production during World War II, and the festival was shelved from 1942-1947.

“It wasn’t a priority,” Buteyn said. “And then they started going back in 1948.”

Wheelock has an appreciation for cherries and the event centered around them. She and her husband grew the fruit on Old Mission Peninsula for 26 years, but they didn’t supply to the festival.

She last partook in the festival in 1995. Now she’s “been there, done that.”

There’s a lot Wheelock can’t recall from her 94 years, but the image of horses on front street remains clear in her memory because it was “such a big thing.” She said the festival put Traverse City on the map.

“It was a big attraction for Traverse City to start something like that because this far north there wasn’t that much attractions, and it was a very good outlet for everybody for the summer,” she said.