When asked to write an article about the history of the Gravenstein Apple Fair my thoughts went to images of elaborate exhibits constructed solely of apples. Those exhibits were part of the Gravenstein Apple Show which served as inspiration for the Gravenstein Apple Fair, but they are not one in the same.
The first Gravenstein Apple Show was held on August 10 thru 13, 1910, in a tent on Main Street across from the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Railroad Depot (now the West County Museum). The event was such a success that the newly incorporated Gravenstein Apple Show Association decided to sell stock. The idea was to raise $50,000 by issuing 10,000 shares each selling for $5.
The Association continued hosting apple shows every August through 1915. Reasons for discontinuing the show appear to have been financial. According to some sources, the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition drew dollars and visitors away from the apple show.
The show was revived in 1928 by the Sebastopol Post No. 39, American Legion. This annual multi-day extravaganza took place every August through 1932. The Legionnaires gave it their all by coordinating a variety of exhibits and features that offered a little something for everyone. For instance, a 1929 Apple Show highlight was a “girl revue” with “bevies of beautiful beach mermaids.” The coronation “Miss Gravenstein” was a much anticipated and well-attended event.
Also in 1929, humorist Professor Yendis, assisted by Lady Stella and their pet dog performed live in the Majestic Radio booth.
A headliner for the 1931 show was magician and illusionist, Maledis the Great. Other amusements included music, fashion shows, fiddle contests, gopher snake races, clowns, apple packing, and nailing contests.
Mrs. Ann Snyder of the Garbro Fruit Company packed two boxes of apples in five minutes and 15 seconds, scoring 468 points of a possible 600, to win the apple packing contest 1931. She received $50 for her efforts.
The Depression and World War II put an end to the American Legion sponsored apple shows. The Apple Blossom Festival was established in 1947 and has been held annually ever since. However, it wasn’t until 1973 that Sonoma County would again celebrate the harvest of the Gravenstein apple with a fair – this time under the auspices of the Sonoma County Farm Trails Association.
Founding members of the Farm Trails board of directions were president Bruce Goetz, a Sebastopol blueberry grower; first vice president Al Horsting, who operated a turkey ranch near Oakmont in Santa Rosa; second vice president Bob Larsen of Larsen’s Christmas tree farm in Petaluma; secretary Tom Symes of Occidental who worked for the farm labor division of the state employment agency and had a small apple orchard; and treasurer Bob Walker, Sebastopol apple grower.
The idea for a farm trails program began with meetings in January and February 1973. The Sonoma County Farm Bureau was intent on devising means by which farmers and ranchers could generate more income from their products.
An advisory committee was formed with the assistance of the University of California Agricultural Extension Service farm advisor in Santa Rosa, John J. Smith.
The committee also benefited from Gladys Amorocho, a graduate student at the University of California Davis, whose report Direct Marketing Opportunities for Agricultural Products in Sonoma County evaluated the feasibility of such a program.
U.C. Agricultural Marketing Specialist Dr. Leon Garoian provided assistance, as did Edith Sanford, executive secretary of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and others.
By May of 1973, over 100 Sonoma County farmers had come together to form the Sonoma County Farm Trails Association, and plans for creating Farm Trail maps were underway. The maps would be distributed to tourists and locals alike. The Sonoma County Farm Bureau provided office space for the association, but identifying a dedicated source of funding for the organization was required. The Gravenstein Apple Fair would meet that need.
Sonoma County Farm Trails and the Sebastopol Chamber of Commerce co-sponsored the first Gravenstein Apple Fair which took place on the grounds of the Enmanji Buddhist Temple on August 11 and 12, 1973. Over 20 booths were set up featuring fresh Gravenstein apples, apple sauce, juices, and a variety of other apple products and vegetables. Events included apple pie-baking contests, apple bobbing, displays of antique farm equipment and apple sculptures. Visitors were also encouraged to catch a motorized cable car shuttle to the Chamber of Commerce office at 6876 Petaluma Avenue where historical exhibits were on display commemorating the building’s 50th anniversary.
In 1976 the Fair moved to Forestville Youth Park and in 1977 to Ragle Ranch Park where if it weren’t for COVID 19 it would be celebrating its forty-seventh year on August 15 and 16.
The Fair has welcomed visitors from all over the Bay Area and beyond for the past four-plus decades. In recent years, according to Carmen Snyder, Executive Director of Sonoma County Farm Trails and Manager of the Gravenstein Apple Fair, 11,000 to 15,000 people visit the Gravenstein Apple Fair each year.
The Gravenstein Apple Fair continues the traditions of the past shows by offering pie baking and eating contests as well as live music, but instead of magicians and fashion shows you’ll find an impressive lineup of agricultural heroes willing to share their expertise on a variety of topics as well as cider, beer, cheese, and wine tastings. Unfortunately, that won’t occur this year – at least not as it has in the past.
Carmen and the Farm Trails board of directors are making alternative plans to celebrate and preserve Sonoma County’s apples and farms and are looking for ways to address the reality of losing their number one source of funding.