blue angels, national cherry festival
Crowd at Bryant Park for Blue Angels, National Cherry Festival 2016 | Jane Boursaw Photo
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Well, it’s official. We were all waiting to see whether the folks at the National Cherry Festival would cancel this year’s festival, and the announcement came today. The National Cherry Festival is canceled for the summer of 2020 in order to stop the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus and protect the community.

Originally scheduled for July 4-21, 2020, the next National Cherry Festival will now take place on July 3-10, 2021. Here is the official announcement from Kat Paye, Executive Director.

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“There have been few times in our near 100-year history that the National Cherry Festival has not come together to put on a wonderful celebration of cherries, and in those rare instances, it was always to support the community and protect the region. In these unprecedented times, it is for those same reasons, and with heavy hearts, the decision has been made to postpone the National Cherry Festival to July 3rd-10th, 2021,” Paye said in a statement on the festival’s website.

“The safety and health of our entire community, guests, volunteers, and staff is our first priority and always top of mind when making our decisions,” she added. “We did not make this decision lightly. At each and every step we took into account not only the time and effort that goes into planning this festival, but also the impact on the economy of our area. However, with the uncertainty of the times, we are unable to be fully confident in the fact that it will be safe to gather and celebrate the first week of July 2020.”

Humble Beginnings on the Old Mission Peninsula

The first incarnation of the National Cherry Festival, the Blessing of the Blossoms, dates back to 1910, when the residents of the Old Mission Peninsula created the ceremony to pray for a good cherry crop. Over the years, more orchards were planted and the ceremony grew as cherries became more important to the region’s economy.

In 1925, cherry growers partnered with Traverse City merchants to create the “Blessing of the Blossoms Festival” to promote the region and the cherry business. For a number of years, the Freidrich Tower (across from what is now Chateau Grand Traverse) was the ceremony site. Mr. Freidrich built the observation tower, dressed it with garlands, and sought to wed tourism and faith in the Blessing ceremony.

Old Mission History: Friedrich Tower on the Old Mission Peninsula
Old Mission History: Blessing of the Blossoms at Freidrich Tower on the Old Mission Peninsula

The location moved to various locales around the Peninsula, including Bowers Harbor Park. In 1928, the “Blessing of the Blossoms” was renamed the Michigan Cherry Festival, which eventually evolved into the National Cherry Festival.

The “Blessing of the Blossoms,” however, continues to take place annually on the Old Mission Peninsula. I have not heard whether it will happen this year, so stay tuned to Old Mission Gazette for news.

Here is Kate Paye and National Cherry Queen Abbey Kaufman at the Blessing of the Blossoms in 2017, held at Chateau Chantal on the Old Mission Peninsula.

national cherry festival, abbey kaufman, national cherry queen, kat paye
National Cherry Queen Abbey Kaufman (r) with National Cherry Festival Executive Director Kat Paye at the 2017 Blessing of the Blossoms at Chateau Chantal | Jane Boursaw Photo

And here is Chateau Chantal’s Bob Begin and Rev. James of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church at the 2016 Blessing of the Blossoms, held at Chateau Chantal.

Blessing of the Blossoms
Chateau Chantal’s Bob Begin and Rev. James of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church at the 2016 Blessing of the Blossoms | Jane Boursaw Photo

Economic Impact of Canceling the National Cherry Festival

Now one of the biggest festivals in the Grand Traverse region, the National Cherry Festival brings in more than 500,000 people over eight days and has featured scores of celebrities and dignitaries over the years, including President Gerald Ford in 1975 and Bob Hope in 1978, along with fest favorites the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

More than 2400 volunteers devote some 45,000 hours to keep the 150 festival events and activities running smoothly, including parades, air shows, the Meijer Festival of Races, a craft show, various concerts and more. This year, REO Speedwagon, Collective Soul and Everclear were scheduled to perform. Information on refunds for these events can be found here.

“Not only is the Festival a beloved national tradition, it’s a key economic driver for our region,” said Trevor Tkach, President and CEO of Traverse City Tourism. “It’s painful to see organizers cancel the 2020 event, but prioritizing the health and safety of festival goers, volunteers and the community is the honorable thing to do.”

While the National Cherry Festival has historically taken place before local cherries are ready for harvest – last year, harvest on the Old Mission Peninsula started on July 18, 20 days after the festival started on June 29 – the economic impact to the Grand Traverse region of canceling the festival cannot be understated.

According to a study commissioned through Grand Valley State University in 2016, the economic impact of the National Cherry Festival on the local economy was some $19 million at that time.

Conclusions from the study: “We estimate the total economic impact of the National Cherry Festival on the local economy at $19 million, which increases household income by $5.3 million, supports 228 jobs and increases the local GDP by $11 million. Our estimated total economic impact likely underestimates the actual impact as the estimate was derived using relatively conservative assumptions and methods.

“Also, this estimate ignores the impact of spending by vendors, entertainers and the media. Moreover, a measure of the economic impact of the festival excludes long-run economic and cultural impacts. Namely, new visitors to Traverse City may return in the future given their positive experience during the National Cherry Festival.”

But festival organizers want to assure the community that this is just a pause in the history of the National Cherry Festival.

“We want to thank our growers, partners, vendors, sponsors, volunteers, and community leaders for their commitment to the National Cherry Festival,” they note on the website.

“There is a lot of good happening throughout the Traverse City area during this difficult time, and we are proud to be a part of this special community. The celebration may look different this year, but Traverse City will continue to be called the Cherry Capital of the World as we all support our growers, processors, and celebrate cherries. Stay safe and stay healthy and eat cherries.”

Are you sad to see the National Cherry Festival canceled for 2020? Leave thoughts in the comments section below.

National Cherry Festival 1961
National Cherry Festival, circa 1961 | Mary Johnson Photo

SUPPORT YOUR INDEPENDENT LOCAL NEWSPAPER: I started Old Mission Gazette in 2015 because I felt a calling to provide the Old Mission Peninsula community with local news. After decades of writing for newspapers and magazines like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Family Circle and Ladies' Home Journal, I really just wanted to write about my own community where I grew up on a cherry farm and raised my own family. So I started my own newspaper.

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