Twelve years ago, members of the Onalaska Alliance envisioned creating a festival that would highlight the best their community had to offer.
Despite the challenges of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Cathy Murphy, chair of the Onalaska Alliance, which sponsors the community festival, said plans are for next weekend’s Onalaska Apple Harvest Festival to continue in that tradition.
The Onalaska Apple Harvest Festival will take place Oct. 1-3 in and around Onalaska, with the bulk of events that draw the public to the event on Saturday, Oct. 2, and Sunday, Oct. 3. Traditionally the final community festival of the summer season, Onalaska’s 11th annual festival was canceled last year, along with just about every other event, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Murphy said the Onalaska Alliance members waited until June, about three months later than normal, to begin planning this year’s Apple Harvest Festival because of the uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation in Washington. Once plans began, Murphy said the consensus among event organizers was that as many Apple Harvest Festival events as possible should be planned to be held outdoors this year because of the greater potential for virus spread in indoor spaces. One example is the KidVenture activities that are usually hosted inside the elementary school gym, which were changed to a KidVenture Field Day at the middle school fields.
“Public safety is our biggest concern, not just with the pandemic but with everything,” Murphy said.
The decision to push the majority of Apple Harvest Festival events outdoors ended up being a good one since the indoor mask mandate for the state came back into effect Aug. 23 and a statewide outdoor mask mandate for gatherings of more than 500 followed it on Sept. 13. Murphy said in response to the outdoor mask mandate, a few of the events published in the Alliance’s Apple Harvest Festival brochure that has already been distributed to the public were changed. The biggest change was the all-area community church service was moved from the elementary school gym to the outdoor venue of Carlisle Lake. Murphy said Carlisle Lake allows for a beautiful outdoor setting and the large maintenance building on the site can be used with the garage doors open in case of inclement weather.
Most events were able to be kept in the schedule by being moved outdoors. Unfortunately, the royal court bingo originally planned for Thursday night and the Farm & Homestead tour dinner planned for Sunday night both had to be canceled but are planned to return next year.
If the Onalaska Alliance’s annual fundraiser is any indication, the Onalaska Apple Harvest Festival may look slightly different this year, but the community will still rally behind it. Like many community organizations and nonprofits, the Onalaska Alliance lost not only events but also fundraising opportunities. After canceling the 2020 Apple harvest Festival, the Alliance’s annual fundraiser in early 2021 at the Mason Jar also could not go forward as planned because of ongoing restrictions. Whether fundraisers can happen or not, the organization still had ongoing expenses, including an estimated $10,000 annually to operate the Carlisle Lake area. So, taking a cue from some other organizations that had been successful at holding virtual fundraisers, the Alliance decided to try a creative approach and offer a weekend of online auctions. The new approach raised more money than the fundraiser ever had before, with participants who logged in from all over the globe.
Murphy praised the Onalaska community for their continued support during these very uncertain times. The Alliance’s next annual fundraiser is already planned for Feb. 19, 2022 at the Mason Jar but Murphy said there has already been talk of potentially offering an online component even if an in-person event is able to happen
“People just kind of got into it and it turned out really good and now we’re talking about ‘should we do that again?’” Murphy said. “When we have our in-person event, we can seat about 100 people but our online presence is exponential.”
One change to Apple Harvest Festival that is not COVID related is the increased hours and decreased stops on the Farm & Homestead Tour, set for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 3. For a $15 donation to the Onalaska Alliance, participants can take part in a self-guided tour of five locations: Wells Winery in Onalaska; Lewis County Farms, in Ethel; Root Cellar Farm in Onalaska; Salkum Garden, in Salkum; or Huntting’s Pumpkin Patch and Haunted Forest, in Cinebar.
Murphy explained this change was from feedback from tour participants. Previous farm tours were shorter and had more stops. Organizers told participants they would not likely be able to visit every farm on the tour but many of them wanted to do so, which led to frustration from participants and farmers, who found some visitors did not stay as long as they expected them to because they were attempting to squeeze in as many farm stops as possible.
“One of the goals is for people to experience what it is like to be in a rural setting and on a working farm,” Murphy explained. “We want it to be inspirational, educational and experiential.”