JAF turns 50

LISBON — The Johnny Appleseed Festival will turn 50 year next weekend, and three local people who grew up with the JAF say the popular annual event in many ways has retained its original vibe after a half century.

“It’s an opportunity to see people you normally don’t get a chance to see. I think it still has the small town feel, and that’s part of the charm,” said Bev Clingerman.

Clingerman, Bob Bye and Marilyn McCullough graduated from Lisbon’s David Anderson High School in May 1967, with the first JAF held that fall. It has been held every September since, drawing about 15,000 people over two days.

McCullough is director of the Lisbon Area Chamber of Commerce, which assumed responsibility for the JAF about 10 years ago. She said a group of residents started the festival in 1967 to capitalize on Lisbon’s connection to Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman. After serving an apprenticeship with a neighboring farmer who grew apples, Chapman left his Massachusetts home in 1792 at the age of 18. He roamed as far west as Indiana, starting apple orchards along the way, including in the Lisbon area. The eccentric Chapman, who is often depicted barefoot and wearing tattered clothing and a pot for a hat, spent much of his time in Ohio. Many of the state’s first apple orchards began with his saplings.

Not surprisingly, the emphasis of the JAF then and now is still on all things apple, starting with Johnny Appleseed. A chainsaw-carved statue of Chapman greets festival-goers in the town square, and local resident Sonny Reynolds, who now portrays him, can be seen walking about.

For many, it is all about the apple food products: apple fritters, apple dumplings, apple pie, apple ice cream, apple butter and, of course, apples and apple cider.

“A lot of people come back for their favorite apple treats,” McCullough said, who described the JAF as a street fair that “has grown and grown.”

For years, the JAF was held in the town square located on both sides of Lincoln Way, the main east-west thoroughfare through town. It was later moved entirely south of Lincoln Way at the request of the Ohio Department of Transportation because of the traffic rerouting issues it created.

The JAF has been held downtown with the exception of the two years it was moved to the Columbiana County Fairgrounds, once because the town square was under renovation, according to Councilwoman Cheryl Mills, who served the JAF committee during the first 25 years.

“There’s a lot that’s different. It’s still good, but it’s not the original fair,” Mill said, adding it is still a wonderful event for the village. “I’m glad they continue it.”

During the JAF’s early years, Clingerman worked at the old Nickles’ 5 & 10 on South Market Street where the county courthouse parking lot is located. Each year owner Jim Pezzano would give his female employees fabric needed for them to make long dresses of the type worn when Johnny Appleseed lived, and they were expected to wear the dresses during the JAF.

“We all made our own dresses, but back then everyone sewed,” she said.

Clingerman’s favorite memories are of a once bustling downtown Lisbon filled with businesses, in the days before shopping plazas, malls and big-box stores.

“There were so many merchants downtown, and everyone decorated their windows, and I really loved that part,” she said. “It was just a different atmosphere. It seemed like the whole town came together for the event.”

Many businesses still decorate their windows, such as Bye & Bye Hardware Store. Bye said he begins planning his new window display months in advance. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said.

Bye recalls when the JAF was a three-day event held Thursday-Saturday and then Friday-Sunday. It is now held Saturday and Sunday. He also said there were no amusement rides during the early years, but they were added later.

Then, like now, Bye said there were a lot of food and craft vendors, along with antique dealers some historic displays. There was also some unusual entertainment, such as the one year a group of people riding tall unicycles pedalled down North Market Street hill, followed by a circus calliope.

Bye said the JAF generates a lot of foot traffic for his store, and he recalls a couple from Cleveland discovered the store while attending the festival and later returned.

“You just meet of lot of nice people,” he said.

One of their favorite things about the JAF is how it is serves as a homecoming of sorts, with some graduating classes even scheduling their class reunions at that time.

“Just seeing everybody and seeing people you haven’t seen for a while,” McCullough said. “It’s just great fellowship.”

Bye agreed. “It’s still the same, a homecoming thing that everyone comes back for,” he said.