Big apples

In Bayfield, a fall festival has grown to jumbo proportions.

Apple Festival in Bayfield.
There are a lot of photo opps at Apple Fest.

In Bayfield, Wis., the apple has mushroomed.

In 1961, the apple was the object of a small village festival. Today, it draws 60,000 people to a fall blowout featuring all things apple — fritters, sundaes, dumplings, pies and apple-cheeked children.

On northern Wisconsin's Bayfield Peninsula, Apple Festival is nearly as revered as motherhood.

"People really like it," says Therene Gazdik of Big Top Chautauqua. "It's a celebration, because this is it. They know that after this, the people are gone till May."

Like a bear putting on fat for winter, Bayfield pulls in as many tourists as it can before the cold winds blow on Lake Superior. It doesn't have to try that hard; this picturesque old fishing village, tumbling down a hillside toward a lakeshore lined by sailboats, is irresistible to weekenders.

In its early days, people came just for the refreshing breezes, especially if they suffered from hay fever.

Now, folks are a little busier. Kayakers and sailors glide over to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Sightseers take cruises to see the eight lighthouses and hear tales about shipwrecks. Vacationers take the ferry to Madeline Island and its beaches.

In fall, some of the action switches to the hills above Bayfield, where a dozen orchards produce pears, apples, pumpkins, honey, cider and jams.

But mostly, people like to stroll around town, browsing in the shops on Rittenhouse Avenue, watching boats going in and out of the marina, walking along the Brownstone Trail or into a ravine on the Iron Bridge Nature Trail.

Strolling isn't quite possible during the annual Apple Festival; milling is what people do then, amid the crowds that descend on the village of 800. Over the years, the festival has grown bigger and bigger, as its fame has spread.

But somehow, it still manages to be not only a small-town festival but also a festival true to Bayfield, an unpretentious place whose motto is "Real Tourists Eat Whitefish Livers."

Apple Fest parade in Bayfield.
During the parade, Eve munches on an apple with Adam on the Hauser orchard float.

I had to see it for myself, and one of my first stops was the Grandstand Stage, where Warren Nelson was warbling "Trolling Home to You," an ode to fishermen.

"They go out to check their nets in the cold and dark and thank God they do, because that's why we have fresh fish in Bayfield morning and afternoon," sang Nelson, who founded Big Top Chautauqua on the edge of town and co-wrote many of the historical musicals it features in summer.

Then, he and the Blue Canvas Orchestra & Singers paused to let the apple-peeling contest get under way. For an hour, entrants hunch over an apple, trying to unfurl the longest possible strip of skin, using any instrument they choose.

Mary Rehwald of nearby Ashland had brought a peeler, the obvious but worst choice, as she found out when its sharp edge severed her peel after 86 inches.

"Now, I know," she said, popping the apple into her mouth.

Ran Wei of Beijing, a graduate student in math at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, managed 65 inches, better than her friend Wenji's 39 inches but still a disappointment to her.

"In my family, I think I am very good at peeling, but here I am nothing," she said.

It took an orthopedic surgeon with a Swiss Army knife to leave them all in the dust. He carved through the skin first and then used his knife's screwdriver to separate it from the flesh.

As the hour drew to a close, Bob Shepley of Northfield, Minn., speeded up, and Nelson started to heckle him.

"Some of these peels are taking longer than it takes to pass a Minnesota state budget," he said. "You know why they call them the Golden Gophers? Because they get roasted every Saturday."

The friendly gibes failed to keep the legendary Dr. Bob from his eighth straight championship, which he won with a peel just 2 inches short of his record: 428 inches.

Apple peeling at Bayfield's Apple Fest.
To win the peeling contest, competitors need to use surgical precision.

Shepley had to attend his son's confirmation ceremony the following year and couldn't compete, so he divulged his secret.

"My trick is, you have to do it upside down," he said. "If you do it from the top, the peel folds over and just snaps. It took me eight years to figure that out."

A woman from the chamber of commerce took his photo, and Shepley thanked her: "I really appreciate it that you have this contest, so I can show a talent," he said.

By midafternoon, throngs filled the streets of Bayfield, standing in line for grilled apple bratwurst, looking at artwork under white tents and watching demonstrations by the fast-talking salesman of Waterless Kitchen Craft.

Up the hill at Hauser's Superior View Farms, children rode ponies in a circle, teenagers bumbled through a fence maze, and people on a hay wagon shouted, "Yee-haw!"

Apple Fest parade in Bayfield.
Parade watchers get free apples in Bayfield.

In October, Hauser family members from around the nation return to the 1908 family farm to help during Apple Fest.

In a tent adjoining the family's 1920s red mail-order barn from Sears Roebuck, Scott Hauser led a crowd through tastings of wine made from apples and pears and flavored by currants, blackberries, cherries and blueberries.

"No grapes died to give you this wine, but I think you'll find it very pleasing," he said, holding up a bottle of Queen's Red, an apple wine named for his wife, Renate, the "queen of cider."

Inside the barn, a poster explained why the Bayfield Peninsula is famous for its fruit: "It's the sun rising over the Great Lakes, it's the soil left by the mighty glacier, it's the pristine water from an ancient inland sea, it's our warm summer days and crisp autumn nights."

As evening fell, the Pipes & Drums of Thunder Bay, Ontario, began to play at the base of Rittenhouse Avenue, resplendent in kilts, white boots and black fur hats.

The musicians are an Apple Festival favorite; when they marched away, the admiring crowd followed as closely as if they were the pied pipers of Hamelin, not Thunder Bay.

Then, the Venetian Boat Parade started in the marina, with each boat taking a turn sashaying before judges.

One sloop featured Bucky Badger, the University of Wisconsin mascot, amid strings of white and gold lights; on another, a twinkling crescent moon mimicked the real moon just above.

By 10:30 Sunday morning, people already were staking out spots along the parade route, and by the time the Bayfield High School band began marching down Rittenhouse Avenue, the town was filled to the gills.

The U.S. Coast Guard rolled by in a search and rescue boat, the Hayward Musky Festival queens waved from a float, and the staff of Maggie's Restaurant rode a rhinestone-encrusted car with tinsel fringe and a bubble machine.

Pipes & Drums of Thunder Bay play.
The Pipes & Drums of Thunder Bay always are a hit.

There were plenty of Tootsie Rolls tossed, but also shiny apples handed out from baskets.

During Apple Festival, the crowds almost overwhelm the town. But in beloved little Bayfield, the tourists deserve one last party.

Trip tips: Apple Fest in Bayfield, Wisconsin

When to go: Crowds drop off fast after Labor Day, making September a peaceful time to visit. After Apple Festival, the town is quiet, and some shops reduce their hours.

Apple Festival: It's Oct. 6-8 in 2023.

Bring folding chairs to sit on while listening to concerts or watching the Sunday parade.

Hiking: The Brownstone Trail follows an old rail grade 2½ miles down the bay to Port Superior. The trailhead is the lumberyard off Manypenny Avenue, diagonally from Maggie's Restaurant.

Food stands at Apple Fest.
Stands offer all kinds of food besides apples.

The half-mile Iron Bridge Nature Trail starts on Washington Avenue, near the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore headquarters.

Accommodations: Rooms in Bayfield book up nearly a year in advance for Apple Festival, and eventually they book up between Duluth and the Michigan border. However, the tourism folks often get last-minute cancellations, so check with them.

On other weekends, there's a nice selection of B&Bs, Airbnbs, inns, motels, condos and cottages.

For suggestions, see Beloved Bayfield.

Cruises: The Apostle Islands Cruise Service offers a morning Grand Tour cruise daily through mid-October.

Information: Bayfield Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Bureau, 800-447-4094.

Last updated on January 13, 2022

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