Driving down Interstate 26 last weekend, my mind resonated with everything I had ever heard (or learned) about Unicoi County and the town of Erwin.
Of course, there’s the incredible scenery…where you can see the ghosted peaks of the Unaka Mountain Range separating Tennessee and North Carolina. There’s the “Grand Canyon of the East,” a vastly deep gorge carved by thousands of years worth of flowing waters from the Nolichucky River. There’s that good old story of “Murderous Mary,” the crazed elephant that was hung from a railroad derrick…
And I wandered through every recollection I’d ever had about this place, there was one thing I just couldn’t seem to figure out: “What the heck is so special about apples anyway?”
After all, I was in town for the 34th Annual Unicoi County Apple Festival, and for the life of me couldn’t figure out what apples had to do with Northeast Tennessee.
So, naturally, when I met up with Amanda, Dawn, and the kind folks at the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce, my first question was: “Why apples?”
Turns out that back in the 1970s there was a sizable group of apple-growers in the mountains outside Erwin. Even though their apples were just as plump and delicious as any, they just couldn’t sell them all. That’s because all the apples were up in the mountains—and all the townspeople were, well, down in the town.
So in 1978, a group of these farmers decided they’d pick a day—when the apple crop was at its peak, and they’d haul the fruit down to Erwin to sell. They also hired “Old Joe” Clark, a local bluegrass musician to provide the entertainment.
And the event—to say the least—was a success. So much in fact, that the following year it was a two-day “festival.”
And then it hit me…this festival isn’t so much about apples as it is local growers, artists, and craftsmen coming together to showcase their goods for appreciative people.
Now, 33 years later, the Unicoi County Apple Festival brings more than 100,000 people to downtown Erwin for an authentic sample of Northeast Tennessee art, craft, culture and cuisine. And even with more than 350 food and craft vendors, the festival organizers are extremely strict on who can and can’t set up shop. They’ve stayed true to those values that formed the very first festival, favoring the hand-made and home-made over anything mass-produced.
You’ll see everything from can-joes to canned preserves, straw brooms to woodcarvings. They’ve got games, rides and inflatables for the kids—plus two music stages with bluegrass, gospel, country, and all sorts of music. There’s a Blue Ridge Pottery show and sale (more about Blue Ridge Pottery coming very soon!). And they’ve also got plenty of—you guessed it—apples. Apple cider, apple butter, candied and caramel apples, and the list goes on and on.
So if you get a chance to visit the Unicoi County Apple Festival (I’ll be reminding you when it comes around next year…), you’re in for a treat. Be sure you get there early—there’s a lot to see, hear and learn. It’s more than just a celebration of apples and music and arts and crafts…it’s a testament to the notion that hand-made and home-made still have their place in Appalachian culture. And when you hold tight to those authentic and genuine values, that’s what keeps ‘em coming back year after year.
Learn more about the Apple Festival