Tourists are rolling into Traverse City to take part in the region’s busiest summer event: The National Cherry Festival. They’ll spin at the midway, chomp treats at the food court, watch airplanes do somersaults, admire classic cars, perhaps participate in an athletic event, and — of course — taste some sweet cherries.
Though the National Cherry Festival has evolved over the decades into a full-fledged community fiesta, agriculture remains an integral part of the event. Orchard tours allow people to learn about the life of cherry farmers. Farmers markets, a series of brunches, pie-eating contests and pit-spitting contests feature cherries, or at least parts of them. The majority of festival events feature “cherry” in their names.
Today’s events range from a pancake breakfast to an air show to a music concert. The week offers a dizzying variety of things to do.
Some local residents choose to sidestep the crowds and make themselves scarce for the week. But most locals sample at least a taste of the cherry festival fun.
The air show, both today and Sunday, draws huge crowds to the bayfront. Parades on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday attract audiences all along Front Street. In between are beach volleyball matches, a fashion show, the crowning of the Cherry Queen, a teddy bear tea, and races for toddlers, runners, bicyclists and turtles.
The dazzling collection of activities that is today’s National Cherry Festival probably would be unrecognizable to the folks who in the 1920s created a little local festival to celebrate the cherry harvest. The event became so successful that organizers extended it to three days in 1930, when President Herbert Hoover attended opening day ceremonies. The Michigan state legislature in 1931 declared it a national festival. It officially became a week-long event in 1968. It now stretches across nine days.
The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds first performed at the cherry festival in 1978. The team is back this year with its team of F-16 Fighting Falcon jets to demonstrate military training and precision. They’ll be joined in the air by a Harrier jump jet, an F-18 Super Hornet, several modern aerobatic acts and a 1943 Beech 18. A highlight of the air show every year is a demonstration by our local heroes from Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City.
These days, the festival attracts half a million people during the course of the week. It’s big deal. Visitors pump lots of money into the local economy. Our temporarily enlarged population means that roads and retail checkout lines will be more crowded the next few days. It also means our motels, restaurants, gas stations and stores will be both busy and profitable.
Our local cherry crop is delayed this season because of a chilly spring. It appears unlikely Grand Traverse region cherries will be ripe this week. Festival organizers assure us that fresh Michigan-grown cherries — from the southwest part of the state — will arrive in town no later than mid week. Until then, cherries from Washington state will be on hand.
The National Cherry Festival these days is about a lot more then cherries. But cherries remain the backbone of the celebration. So enjoy the fun. Partake of whatever special events strike your fancy. Help Traverse City celebrate our signature small fruit.