TRAVERSE CITY — It is said that “everything old will be new again.” This certainly applies to the Traverse Area’s Blessing of the Blossoms celebration May 20 (today) at Chateau Chantal.
This spiritual emphasis returns the cherry harvest to its roots, which stretch back to the early 1900s and eventually gave rise to the National Cherry Festival.
“The event brings people together to connect to the wider being that we can all hope will influence the weather and bring blessings to our crops,” said Marie-Chantal Dalese, president and CEO of Chateau Chantal.
The Cherry Fest focuses on promoting the beauty of the region, the value of the cherry crops, and drawing tourists to the area. But it in no way resembles the event from which it grew. With the modern Chateau Chantal gathering, the Blessing of the Blossoms came full circle — blessings to marketing to blessings.
In those early days Old Mission farmers gathered yearly in May to pray for good weather and bountiful crops.
By the turn of the 20th century, cherries had become vitally important to this area’s economy. As is true today, they were threatened by pests, spring frosts and winter kills. Prayer for successful crops seemed like a good idea. Those farmers’ motivations most likely matched those of Chateau Chantal winemaker Mark Johnson, who passed away in August, 2017.
In a 2017 Old Mission Gazette video he states: “We are farmers and we live and die by mother nature, or whatever you want to call it. We are living off the land. We just feel that we need to give thanks for what we got here. I mean just look around at the Peninsula, this one of the most beautiful places in the world. And we want to give thanks for that. And we want to ask for blessings.”
The farmers looked for blessings for the crops, and by the 1920s area business leaders were looking for blessings for the area’s economic growth. In 1924 and 1925 community leaders such as Record-Eagle Editor Jay P. Smith, and C.F. Zapf, president of the Zapf Fruit Package Company and an area fruit grower, approached the Old Mission cherry growers. They proposed creating a larger event which would promote both the region and the cherry business. The rest is history.
On Sunday, May 24, 1925 the first formal Blessing of the Blossoms was held at the Friedrich Tower near the intersection of Center and Nelson roads on Old Mission Peninsula. The next day The Record-Eagle reported that more than 1,000 people gathered at the viewing tower for the new, upgraded Blessing of the Blossoms. The tower was decorated with bunting, blossoms and evergreens, with the American flag at its top whipped by the wind.
Deputies from the sheriff’s department directed traffic, an address was given by the Rev. Floyd Blewfield, district superintendent of the Methodist Church, and music was provided by a male quartet. The paper described it as "the most impressive religious ceremony ever held in the Grand Traverse Region."
Unfortunately for those in attendance, Mother Nature was not kind. The Record-Eagle’s description reveals the uncertainties in scheduling a May event:
“A chill wind whistled across the hill top and it ... was found better to hold the ceremonies in a deep valley southwest of the tower, which offered shelter from the northwest winds. It was in this setting that the religious ceremonies were held. The crowd was banked against the north side of the valley while the ministers of the city stood at the foot of the slope and preached up to the multitude ... Half the crowed which attended the ceremonies remained in their automobiles because of the cold winds, thus reducing by half the congregation which assembled on the hillside. Unfortunately those in the cars were unable to hear Rev. Blewfield’s excellent address and the music by the quartet, because of the high wind hustling over the hills."
In 1926 the weather seems to have cooperated, but by 1927 Mother Nature again raised her ugly head. Cold and snowy weather was continuing into May, so the Blessing’s organizing committee decided to move the larger celebration to July, when the cherries would be ripe. The new, summer, proposal included a “Monster parade, the cherry-eating and pie baking contests, water events, pavement dancing etc. The celebration will take place at the season when the resorters are here, and they will be asked to participate in it.”
Thus weather, and most likely some marketing concerns, precipitated today’s summertime Cherry Fest schedule.
The committee did want to salvage the blossom celebration: “It will be kept alive until another year, when it will be resumed in all its customary popularity. This year the cherries, rather the Blossoms, will be glorified.” 1927’s summer festival date became permanent, but for decades the Blessing of the Blossoms did continue as its own event.
Then, in 1967, that stand-alone May event was discontinued, and a Blessing of the Cherries event was added to the July schedule.
Chateau Chantal decided to resurrect the prayer-oriented Blessing of the Blossoms as its own May event in the 1990s, said winery co-founder Bob Begin. His daughter, Marie, describes today’s blessing:
“Today’s blessing is meant for anyone who feels drawn to connect to the wider being that we can all hope will influence the weather and shower blessing on our crops. The format will be familiar to those from a Christian background, but we also draw in other traditions, such as the Native American ritual of offering blessings in all four directions.”
People of all faiths are welcome, she said.
Today's event runs from 1-5 p.m. and features complimentary cherry pie, refreshments and musical entertainment after the 30-minute service. Children are encouraged to participate with provided blossom branches. The Blessing Ceremony and refreshments are free and open to the public.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to change incorrect information provided to the Record-Eagle. Friedrich Tower, the site of the first Blessing of the Blossoms, was located at Center and Nelson roads. — May 29, 2018