Researched and Written By Karen Rieser/ Photos by Chris Rieser
COVID-19, microscopic, but powerful enough to shut down the beloved National Cherry Festival (NCF). The announcement came Thursday, April 16th, 2020. The popular summer event was scheduled for July 4-11, just eighty days from the date of the announcement.
What led to this tough decision? Executive Director Kat Page reported to the Traverse City Ticker that there were just too many unanswerable questions. Will the community be out from under the Stay-At-Home order? If allowed to gather, would people desire to attend an event that draws 500,000 people? Also, how would vendors, performers, and volunteers feel about attending? At that time, the NCF was due to make significant expenditures, and guests were beginning to invest money to attend. The NCF felt it could not wait until June to make such a decision. After weeks of discussion with board members, stakeholders, community leaders, and event organizers, the difficult and disappointing decision was made to postpone the event until July 2021. It is, however, not the first time the festival has been canceled.
History of the Cherry
The luscious cherry, the centerpiece of this celebration, originated in China around 4,000 B.C. Over time, it made its way through the Middle East, to Europe, and in the 1600s to North America. French settlers from Normandy brought cherry pits with them and planted them in their gardens, along the St. Lawrence River, and throughout the Great Lakes region. Cherry trees thrived in these areas. The sandy soil provided excellent water drainage; the rolling hills created proper airflow, and Lake Michigan’s lake effect provided warmer winter and cooler summer winds.
In 1893, the first commercial cherry orchard was planted at Ridgewood Farms. When spring arrived, and the blossoms were at their peak, neighborhoods gathered to pray for a successful harvest.
In 1910, with more cherry orchards being planted and more people attending the neighborhood’s prayer ceremony, a decision was made to create a formal ceremony now known as the Blessing of The Blossoms (BOTB). In 1925, Traverse City merchants and the cherry farmers allied to create a Blessing of The Blossoms festival. The festival would draw tourists to northern Michigan early in the spring, thus extending the season. Mr. Freidrich, hoping to pair tourism with faith, offered to have the BOTB held at the Freidrich Tower. Mr. Freidrich would decorate the tower with cheerful garlands to please the crowds. Thinking it would be elegant to float cherry blossoms on the waters of West Bay, the BOTB ceremony was moved to Bowers Harbor Park. The festival received a new name in 1928, the Michigan Cherry Festival, and the event was extended to three days. In 1931, the Michigan Legislature renamed it the National Cherry Festival and moved the activities to the summer. A five-day event was created in 1964, and in 1968 the week-long festival came to be.
It did not put an end to the BOTB. Recently, the BOTB ceremony was held at Chateau Chantal. It was a half-hour, non-denominational ceremony, officiated by local pastors. Children were asked to provide the cherry blossoms. As the blossoms were blessed, the crowd would face north, east, south, and west, while musicians played soothing music. Hopefully, the blossoms will be formally blessed in 2020, but if not, take a minute as you pass the blossoming trees to say a prayer for a plentiful harvest.
The COVID-19 is not the only event to close the NCF. World War II closed the festival from 1942 through 1945. In the summer of 1946, the celebration was postponed as being too soon for merriment after the horrors of war. In place of the NCF, Traverse City celebrated its Centennial in 1947. In 1948, the NCF returned to Traverse City to grow into a highly regarded celebration of today.
Over its ninety-three years, the NCF has brought people to Traverse City from all over the world to enjoy amazing events. Eventually, Traverse City became known as “The Cherry Capital of the World.”
Festival or not, we can still celebrate the cherry trees and the farmers who tend to them. Show your support by purchasing Michigan cherries; it only takes a few seconds to check the label. If they can’t be found in local stores, take a lovely sun-filled ride to the countryside and shop at one of the many fruit stands that are on the side of the road. The trip will be well worth it.