The 36th annual festival kicked off Friday. The event was first held near the County Courthouse to give orchard owners in Unicoi County’s southern end a venue in the heart of the county where they could sell the apples they had grown.
Over the years, the festival has grown from its humble beginnings to include more than 300 food and craft vendors, and in recent years, the two-day event has drawn approximately 100,000 attendees.
It’s the large crowd that the festival now draws that prompted Johanna Jameson with Roan Mountain-based Sweet Tooth Bakery to make the festival her first as a vendor.
“From what I’ve heard from other vendors, there’s around 100,000 people that come through here,” she said. “That really freaked me out and drew me in at the same time.”
Jameson’s booth was set up in the newly established Commons Area, located in the parking lot behind the courthouse. Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Delp said the addition of this new area, which includes a multitude of food and craft vendors and entertainment on a professional touring stage, continues the festival’s tradition of growth.
“It’s not the same festival we’ve had in previous years,” Delp said. “The logistics of the festival are a little different this year with the addition of the Commons Area.”
Delp also said she is impressed by the variety of crafts now available at the festival. She said when she began working with the Chamber of Commerce a little more than a decade ago, the predominant item for sale among vendors was scented candles. Delp said this has now shifted, and vendors offer a plethora of decorative crafts.
“I’m really excited to see those trends are changing,” she said.
One such vendor is the Kingsport-based Artzy Outdoor Expressions, which is making its second appearance at the festival. The booth offers decorative handmade yard art. Kim Gentry said setting up shop at the festival once again was a no-brainer.
“It’s one of the best festivals in the entire region,” Gentry said. “You can look around and see for a mile it’s wall-to-wall people. What I enjoy most is it’s such a diverse group of people.”
But even with the addition of new vendors and a new area, some attendees have not strayed from the festival’s original intent. Christie Banks with Smokey Mountain Honey House, which has set up at the festival for around a decade, said some attend the festival solely for the apples, adding that apple sales are up this year.
“They say ‘We get them every year, we get them right here, we have to have this, and we have to have that, we have to get this. We come every year,’ ” Banks said.
This year’s festival was also proving to be fruitful for fellow veteran vendor and apple seller Stanley’s Produce. Tracy Darr with Johnson City-based Stanley’s said Friday afternoon that workers from the booth would have to make an early morning trip to the orchards today to have enough apples to sell today.
“In the 17 years I’ve been here, I’ve not had to do that,” Darr said.
Like Banks, Darr said many who stop by her booth do so with a single-minded purpose — to get their hands on a few apples and apple desserts.
“I’ve had them come to my booth and say ‘This is what I want and now I’m leaving,’ ” Darr said.
The festival continues today from 8 a.m.-8 p.m.