TRAVERSE CITY — The 87th National Cherry Festival kicked off to a sweet start with cool weather, great food and a multitude of events and attractions.
Thousands of visitors and local residents descended on Traverse City on Saturday for the first full day of the nine-day festival. Cherry Festival officially opened with a classic car cruise Friday night.
Saturday’s festivities started at the Open Space with the popular Cherry Pancake Breakfast. Lines were long as volunteers served up pancakes, sausage, coffee, milk and juice. Festival first-timer Parker Hoye’s reaction to his first bite of pancakes suggested the food was worth the wait.
“This cherry sauce is amazing,” said Hoye, an Iowa State University student. “I’m going to buy some of this stuff.”
Hoye came up to the festival for the day with coworkers from Midland, where they are working at Dow Chemical Company this summer. The group said they’d be happy as long as they had plenty of cherries before they returned, something there was no shortage of at the nearby festival marketplace.
But Cherry Festival isn’t just about the sweet and tart fruit.
Some of the youngest Cherry Fest participants began their day at the Kids’ Big Wheel Race at the Grand Traverse Mall parking lot south of downtown. Dozens of racers boarded their big wheel and lined-up in heats for a straight-shot race across a portion of the parking lot pavement. Heat winners went on to the race finals, and all riders won ribbons and prizes.
J.R. Wildfong, 5, of Mancelona, competed in one of the first heats.
Wildfong, a first-time racer, said he went “as fast as a rocket.”
“Really fast, because I’ve got cheetah power, and horse power,” he said while pointing to his big wheel.
Terra Moody, of Traverse City, brought her son Peter to try out his new big wheel, a recent birthday present.
Moody is a longtime Cherry Festival goer.
“I love Cherry Fest, and we need it for the economy,” she said.
Front Street businesses spent Saturday morning gearing up for what is inevitably one of their busiest weeks of the year.
Gail Lawson, a manager at American Spoon, said shoppers are always looking for businesses with local connections during Cherry Festival.
“We’re locally-owned, we use local farms and we make it all ourselves,” Lawson said. “They gravitate toward businesses like ours.”
American Spoon’s cherry products, like their cherry barbecue sauce, cherry butter and sour cherry preserve, are big sellers during the festival. This year the business is offering cooking demonstrations throughout the week to show customers what the can do with the popular goods.
Down the street at Doug Murdick’s Fudge manager Debbie Murdick said her shop makes extra black cherry and chocolate cherry fudge during the festival.
Cherry Festival business is always good for the Murdick’s, but weather makes a difference.
“If it’s hot, 80 degrees, they go to the beach,” Murdick said. “Rainy and cool they go shopping.”
Saturday’s weather stayed cool and dry throughout the day.
“This weather is ideal festival weather,” said Susan Wilcox-Olson, a National Cherry Festival spokeswoman.
Wilcox-Olson said everything was running smoothly for festival organizers midway through Saturday.
”It’s just a great vibe down here right now,” she said of the festival grounds.
The crowds on Front Street and at the Open Space grew more dense by early afternoon as the Midway buzzed and hummed with the sounds of whirling carnival rides.
But most people turned their attention to the festival’s afternoon air show.
Some festival goers were disappointed this year’s show lacked headliner military demonstration teams like the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds. Still countless observers lined up along the shores of Grand Traverse Bay and watched the planes dip in and out of synchronized twists and turns.
Kylan Pociask, 6, of Davison, said he liked watching the pilots perform loop-de-loops, but he admitted it was a little scary at times when it appeared the planes were going to collide.
Overall Pociask was a big fan of the stunt flyers.
“They’re super awesome,” he said.
Lauren Folkes and Nate Linderman drove up to Traverse City from Grand Rapids and arrived shortly before the airshow started. The two enjoyed samples of cherry almond jam and cherry salsa at the festival marketplace while planes buzzed overhead.
“All very good,” Folkes said. “Before we leave we’re going to get a thing of fresh cherries.”
The marketplace hosted a number of cherry growers’ crops to choose from.
Lauren Dobron staffed a marketplace booth for Edmondson Orchards. Dobron’s aunt is a co-owner of the Old Mission Peninsula orchards, which have been family-owned for generations.
For Dobron the National Cherry Festival is about more than selling cherries. It’s a chance to showcase the region’s traditions and values.
“It’s just a really fun time,” Dobron said. “It’s about community and family, and the growth of both.”