When work is done, Americans like a party. So it's natural, at summer's end when the harvest is in, to toast the new crop with a good-time harvest festival.
Such festivals abound in the fall, all over the country. From now until winter winds chase everybody indoors, big cities and tiny hamlets nationwide will be celebrating the season's new crops.
The focus is on food, of course, fresh from the field and home-prepared, but all these festivals also offer up a hearty serving of good old-fashioned fun. It's American farm-town life of a century past, still alive and flourishing, at least for a few days each year.
Some festivals are major events, held in festival parks built especially for the occasion and drawing tens of thousands of visitors. Others are a bit more homespun, a local affair on Main Street organized and run by volunteers. In either case, travelers who seek them out seldom go unrewarded, and children seem to thrive on the carnival atmosphere.
In Virginia, the folks pay honor to the harvest of apples and peanuts. It's cranberries in Massachusetts; pumpkins in Ohio; zucchini and huckleberries in Washington state; pecans in Georgia. Even the haughty artichoke in California.
Many of the celebrations are ethnic, reflecting this country's immigrant heritage. The Oktoberfests of Old Germany can be found in the Great Lakes states -- Milwaukee throws a great party -- and even Down South in New Braunfels, Texas, where the specialty is wurst or sausage in wide variety. Count on plenty of beer, domestic and imported, at any of them.
Entertainment ranges from educational (how to prepare artichokes), to delightful (parades, sing-alongs, costumed folk-dancing) to home-town hokum. A tradition at the Wurstfest in New Braunfels is the "Sausage Dog" contest: Prizes go to the dachshund that looks most like a sausage.
Since it is harvest time, you get to eat these foods, and more: You often can see them full-grown in the fields or orchards, watch them being picked in traditional or modern-day ways (frequently picking your own) and sometimes tour a nearby processing plant.
The festivals generally are listed months or a year in advance in city, county and state calendars of events, which can be obtained from local chambers of commerce or the state's tourism office.
Taking in a harvest festival is a good way to get the flavor of a place. Here is a sample:
*WURSTFEST, New Braunfels, Texas: Officials don't cut a ribbon to open the 10-day Wurstfest in November. They bite through a tasty chain of sausage links. After all, this is a celebration of sausage.
New Braunfels, a river town of low hills and shady trees south of Austin, was founded by German settlers in 1845, and that heritage remains strong. During the Wurstfest, says a chamber of commerce spokesman, the place "is just as close as you can get to Munich without being there."
In the summer, the city (population about 26,000) is a summer resort. The Guadalupe and Comal rivers attract crowds of water fans for tubing, canoeing, kayaking and rafting. The claim is that the Comal is "the world's shortest river," rising at Comal Springs and flowing into the Guadalupe, all within city limits.
Sausage-making is a local industry. Two firms do a large mail-order business, and many residents still produce their own sausages from deer and pork meat mixed with spices. The Wurstfest, now in its 24th year, draws 150,000 visitors.
Beer flows by the gallon in lovely Landa Park, the site of the 12-acre festival grounds on the Comal River, and more than 40 food booths at the Marktplatz serve up a variety of ethnic treats: sausage on a stick, German potato pancakes, Bavarian waffles topped with hot strawberries and whipped cream.
Music and dancing, both modern and folk, make up a big part of each day's events. And there's plenty of homespun fun. One night everyone who carries an accordian gets in free for the massive accordian play-off. A recent addition is the Hummel lookalike contest: Rosy-cheeked youngsters dress up to resemble the famous German-made figurines.
For a respite from the food and the fun, families turn to another German tradition, the Walkfest, a quiet stoll together beside the river. This fall, Nov. 2-11.
*THE PUMPKIN SHOW, Circleville, Ohio: One look at the skyline of this central Ohio farming and manufacturing community tells you what's important. Rising overhead is Circleville's bulbous water tower, painted pumpkin-orange and topped with a knob that looks exactly like a pumpkin stem. It's a jack-o'-lantern on stilts.
Pumpkins once were a big crop on surrounding farms, grown in among the fields of corn. But modern-day corn-picking machines made pumpkin-raising in the cornfields impractical, so the fall harvest has been reduced.
Still, enough growers remain to keep the Pumpkin Show, which dates back to 1903, very much alive, drawing up to half-a-million visitors for the four-day festival in October. There's no shortage of pumpkin exhibits and pumpkin goodies in the booths that line the downtown streets.
For starters: pumpkinburgers, pumpkin fritters, pumpkin waffles and pancakes, pumpkin donuts -- "They're delicious," says Jean Ankron of the Chamber of Commerce, "and spicy" -- pumpkin fudge and pumpkin ice cream.
The obvious, pumpkin pie, is missing from the list because it deserves special mention. Lindsey's Bake Shop turns out what, at 350 pounds and five feet in diameter, is reputed to be the biggest pumpkin pie in the world, made with authentic ingredients. Mostly, it's for display, but sightseers have been known to dip a finger to find out if it's real.
For a city of less than 12,000, Circleville's residents put on a good show. Downtown streets are blocked to traffic and the pavement fills with entertainment: carnival rides, magicians, concert bands, hog-calling matches, egg-tossing duels, pumpkin-pie bake-offs and pie-eating and jack-o'-lantern-carving contests. And during the four days, the town stages seven parades, which brings up an unusual local custom.
Before each parade, the folks don't line the sidewalks. They stand in the center of the street, directly in the marchers' path. Only when the leading unit approaches do they scramble for the curb. "Kind of weird," says Ankron, but it's all part of the show. Oct. 17-20.
*BEAN SOUP FESTIVAL, McClure, Pa.: McClure will hold its 93rd Bean Soup Festival this month, and for at least 50 of them Sam Bubb was event chairman. Now 84 and still fairly active in the event, he's seen some changes, but not as many as you would expect. The old ways are still pretty good.
The biggest problem these days is where to park all the cars. McClure, a farming community in south central Pennsylvania, has a population of about 1,000, but the five-day bean fest draws a crowd of 20,000 to 25,000 to Cold Spring Grove, a park on the edge of town.
It all began just after the Civil War as a campfire reunion of Union veterans from Pennsylvania. They decided to served up the same menu, beans with beef, that had been their battlefield rations. Actually McClure doesn't grow the beans; it buys them from Michigan, about a ton of Great Northerns. As in decades past, the beans are prepared with beef in 35-gallon kettles hung on tripods -- about 80 kettles worth during the festival.
Folks line up for a bubbling bowl or to buy a quart or two to take home. Once they were served hardtack, a traditional military bread, but it became too hard to find, says Bubb. Now you eat the soup with oyster crackers.
But soup is only part of the event. The barbecued pork, cooked out-of-doors like the soup, is almost as popular. For entertainment, there are carnival rides, an arts and crafts fair, music (mostly "hillbilly," says Bubb) and politics. The state's political leaders can be expected to turn up to meet their constituents, especially in an election year. Sept. 11-15.
*CRANBERRY FESTIVAL, Carver, Mass.: The cranberry harvest has been mechanized, and the result, surprisingly, is a more-colorful show. Once pickers combed the berries by hand from the vines. Now the bogs are flooded, a machine churns the water to loosen the fruit, and the berries float to the surface where they can be scooped up easily.
While afloat, they form "a magnificent sea of crimson," says Herbert Colcord of Ocean Spray, a famous brand name for cranberry products.
During the fall harvest, it's "virtually impossible," says Colcord, to explore the back roads around Carver in southeastern Massachusetts -- the "Heart of Cranberry Country" -- and not find these amazing bogs of floating berries. With 12,000 acres devoted to cranberries, Massachusetts produces about half the country's annual crop.
Mid-October is the height of the harvest, he advises, but if you go in late September you also can take in the Massachusetts Cranberry Festival. The highlights are the booths selling cranberry baked goods, jams and jellies, the cranberry-cooking demonstrations and a ride on the Edaville Railroad.
Once the narrow-gauge train, pulled by steam engine, hauled cranberries from the bogs. Now the cargo is tourists, numbering 10,000 to 12,000 during the festival, who are carried on a 5.5-mile tour across 200 acres of working bogs, reservoirs and uplands. For youngsters, it's an instructional look at how the tart red sauce makes it to the Thanksgiving Day table.
About a 10-minute drive away in Plymouth is Ocean Spray's Cranberry World, where exhibits include working bogs and a scale-model farm tracing the history and lore of the cranberry from colonial times to the present.
A note on terminology: Don't call the people who raise cranberries "farmers," even though they live on what are called farms. They are, says festival official Jean Gibbs, who is one herself, "cranberry growers" or "bog operators." Sept. 22-23 and Sept. 28-29.
*OKTOBERFEST, Milwaukee: It's called Oktoberfest, but they hold it in September (when the weather is warmer). Nevertheless, crowds of up to 30,000 on each of three consecutive weekends know which month the beer is being poured. It's one of the biggest German festivals in the country.
Milwaukee's United German Societies, five Bavarian clubs, put on the show, and what you get is a pretty good copy of a rollicking Munich beer hall. The setting is a vast outdoor pavilion, seating 4,000 in Old Heidelberg Park, which is owned by the societies. The park is about a 10-minute drive north of downtown Milwaukee in Glendale.
The music is oompah band and alpine yodeling. The beer is both Milwaukee (of course) and Bavarian (including the dark Oktoberfest beer brewed for the Munich and Milwaukee fests). And the food is -- what else? -- German. The specialty is spanferkel, which travelers may recognize as "young pig roasted over coals."
Add folk dances, a Miss Muenchnerkindl (Miss Munich) contest, sing-alongs and beer-drinking competition to the beer-garden activities. And if this still isn't gemutlich enough, one society member has filled the pavilion walls with more than a dozen landscape murals. Glance up from your mug for alpine scenes of the Old Country. Sept 8-9, 15-16 and 22-23.
*APPLE HARVEST FESTIVALS, Apple Country, Appalachia: For the next several weeks, the sweet aroma of ripening apples will drift across Apple Country, the rocky hills and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains to the west of Washington.
Winchester, Va., calls itself "The Apple Capital," since it is in the heart of Virginia's apple-growing region. But the abundant groves reach into West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. From mid-September through October, hardly a weekend passes without a harvest festival somewhere nearby.
Probably the most aromatic, and colorful, feature is apple-butter-making. Kettles of peeled and cored apples boil for hours over an open flame, while the cooks, who must keep stirring the pot, try to judge exactly the right time to add the sugar, oil of cinnamon and oil of cloves.
A tour through Apple Country, with a stop at one of the festivals, offers: cider squeezed fresh before your eyes; old-fashioned apple-bobbing; guided tours of an apple-processing plant; pick-them-yourself apple groves; apple-wine tasting; plenty of country music and all the apple treats (pies, cookies, fritters, tarts, ice cream) you could want.
Among the largest of the Appalachian festivals:
*The Apple Harvest Arts and Crafts Festival in Winchester, site of the Virginia State Apple-Butter-Making Contest, Sept. 15-16.
*The Mountain State Apple Harvest Festival in Martinsburg, W.Va., featuring tours of an apple processing plant and the groves at the West Virginia University experimental farm, Oct. 19-21.
*The National Apple Harvest Festival at South Mountain Fairgrounds near Gettysburg, Pa., where you get your choice of a bus tour through the orchards or a helicopter ride overhead, Oct. 6-7 and 13-14.
*ARTICHOKE FESTIVAL, Castroville, Calif.: The story in this tiny community (population 4,000) south of San Francisco is that California's first artichoke queen back in 1947 was Marilyn Monroe, and that seems absolutely appropriate. Monroe was a California dream and, in its own way, so is the artichoke.
Located just a few miles inland from the stunning Monterey coast, Castroville calls itself "the artichoke center of the world." An old sign, arching across Merritt Street at the entrance to town, says exactly that. The extent of the surrounding fields -- 9,000 of California's 11,000 artichoke-growing acres -- substantiates the claim. The country's only artichoke-processing plant, Cara Mia, is here.
The festival takes place in September, a sort of mini-harvest fling (the artichoke yields year-round) before the real work of getting in the peak-season crop begins several weeks later. A big parade, an arts and crafts fair, a 10-kilometer run and a horseshoe tournament are all part of the country fun.
But what really draws the weekend crowd of 20,000 are the artichokes, cooked fresh in front of you by the people who grow them. "And some of them," says Julie Bernardi of the chamber of commerce, "are really good cooks."
If you've never tried this delicacy, here's a chance to sample them in a wonderful variety: french-fried (1,000 pounds in two days), marinated, with dipping sauce, as soup or a cupcake or stuffed with a cold shrimp salad. Monroe knew a good thing when she saw it. Sept. 8-9.