The Applebutter Fest has provided historical re-enactments, handmade crafts, live music, delicious food, and apple butter since 1977! From a small gathering to thousands of fest-goers, the Applebutter Fest has become a Grand Rapids tradition—and one that is shared by villagers and visitors alike.
In the bicentennial year of 1976 communities all across America were inspired to look back into their history. For the Village of Grand Rapids that meant the pioneer settlements of the Maumee River Valley. In that spirit, the Historical Society of Grand Rapids was formed in 1975 with the mission to provide education on the region's rich history, bring the community together through historical and cultural events, and help fund the activities of other local nonprofits.
As former Grand Rapids mayor Jim Carter points out, the Applebutter Fest began as a gathering to demonstrate pioneer and farm-life skills. During the planning of the first community get-together, Carter said, “Why don’t we do something in the park and maybe show our younger generation what used to happen on the farm.”
As fund-raiser, Pat Kryder (a future Fest co-chair), suggested to Historical Society member Marilyn Stevens to try selling apple butter, using an old Kryder family recipe.
The apples available to settlers were unlike the hybrid varieties today, so instead of eating them, farmers pressed them for cider (which could be also fermented into hard cider), and then boiled the apples with cider and sugar to make a thick, sweet fruit butter. This was an economical way to turn the apple crop into products that could be preserved by bottling or canning. It was also a time-consuming and labor-intensive chore that was made easier when everyone pitched in to help; in other words, the perfect activity to bring a community together to produce an old-time treat.
Copper kettles were set up on tripods in the park next to the Town Hall, and folks took turns with the hours of stirring the apples that others had peeled and cored beforehand. An early group photo shows neighbors watching the apples cook down, an image that found its way into the center of the Fest’s logo.
Along with apple butter making, the early Fest featured re-enactors demonstrating pioneer skills and crafts, with music as an accompaniment, both instrumental and vocal.
As teenagers, sisters Lisa and Cassie Heyman and Kaye and Amy Brown serenaded fest-goers with barbershop quartet songs. “We walked through the town, stopping to sing for groups of people,” says Cassie (Heyman) Punches, “with two sets of sisters our voices blended pretty well.” After singing “just for fun” for several Fests, the girls moved up to performing on a stage “plus we got paid!”
Today the Fest has three stages, in Howard Park and on either end of town, with a variety of musical groups who play throughout the day, along with strolling a cappella singers.
Other attractions were antique farm equipment and vintage cars, which formed their own parade as the owners drove them down Front Street for all to see. Quilts were raffled; brats were grilled; handmade crafts were sold. A full day of fun and interesting activities that continues today.
“The Historical Society sponsors the Applebutter Fest as a family-oriented, educational day where we can highlight the history of the Maumee River Basin,” says Steve Kryder, cochair of the Fest. French Canadian fur trappers and English explorers came from the Great Lakes, using the Maumee and other rivers to head west, eventually reaching the Mississippi River, the superhighway of the day. “Lots of history happened here.”
The Historical Society of Grand Rapids sponsors the annual Applebutter Fest as an event that brings people together, both from the local community and cities far and near. There are no employees; a volunteer force works throughout the year to coordinate this event that often hosts over 40,000 visitors. All profits are returned to the community to support nonprofit groups and local school activities, and many local nonprofits participate in the Fest to make their organization’s budget. We thank all our visitors for helping make the Applebutter Fest a success!
"The money made from the first Applebutter Fest was carried in my apron to Ann Laskey's home, now look how it has grown. The hot water for the canning jars were carried by Sharon Carter from her mom's home to the park. Gene Heising & others decorated the park and area. People parked in our fields, we always made sure there was wheat or hay planted so fields would be free for the fest. The churches & school organizations were big helpers in getting the fest started with food, games, skits, style shows, etc.
My late husband Bob was a very big part of starting the Applebutter Fest & was a big help to Steve Kryder for Steve had the kettle full of cobwebs up in his barn. Bob helped clean it out, fix a stirrer up & put corn husks in the holes of the stirrer to keep the apple butter from burning as it was stirred, keeping it from sticking to the bottom of the kettle. The kettle had been used by the Kryder family for many years before, & it had not been used in a long time."
-Betty M. Marlow-Miller