A Beacon of Autumn: Marking 30 Years of Johnny Appleseed Fun

After three decades, Crystal Lake’s beloved late-summer festival continues to celebrate the best of the Midwest and an American folk hero.

An actor portraying Johnny Appleseed brings the folk hero to life every autumn in downtown Crystal Lake. (Downtown Crystal Lake photos)

This year marks a special occasion for an event that’s become a beloved fall tradition in Crystal Lake. As the Johnny Appleseed Festival marks its 30th anniversary on Sept. 30, the streets of downtown Crystal Lake come alive for a day of unforgettable fun.

“I think Johnny Appleseed Festival is one of the most wonderful days in Crystal Lake,” says Lynn Reckamp, executive director of Downtown Crystal Lake, which organizes the event.

Nearly 8,500 people turned out for last year’s festival as it spilled across the streets of downtown. Reckamp believes this year could be just as big, as the festival takes up new traditions and refreshes old ones. At the Brink Street Market parking lot, look for family activities including a petting zoo, a bouncy house playground and a variety of children’s games, from ring toss and lollipop pull to apple picking. Last year, volunteers handed out more than 3,500 prizes to children.

“Our games are $2 a game and some are just $1,” says Reckamp. “For $10 you can bounce in the bouncy houses all day. I think people appreciate that it’s so affordable.”

Down at Depot Park, look for a craft fair with more than 30 vendors hawking all kinds of locally made wares. They’re joined by local nonprofits and the McHenry County Historical Society, which brings its old-fashioned apple peelers for hands-on demonstrations.

Food trucks and downtown restaurants get in on the fun, too, with places like Georgio’s Chicago Pizzeria & Pub and Duke’s Alehouse sometimes taking orders right from the street.

Entertainment abounds, with live music staged at Depot Park and Brink Street Market and a DJ playing music on Brink Street. A stilt walker gets laughs and a balloon artist surprises children with his creations.

But it’s the namesake of the festival – Johnny Appleseed himself – that really gets the kids talking. Every year, an actor brings to life the American folk hero who’s remembered for planting apple trees on his trek through the American wilderness. Though this actor doesn’t wear the signature mush pan atop his head, he does play the part with ragged pants and a calm demeanor that wins over children.

“He truly gets into his character,” says Reckamp. “He told me not too long ago that a mom once came to him at the festival and said her daughter was away at college and couldn’t be here. Johnny gives out pebbles to the children every year, and this mom said, ‘My daughter asked me to find you and get her a pebble, because she’s collected one every year she’s been coming here, ever since she was a little girl.’”

As much as some traditions endure, others are changing, and that includes the Great Ball Race. In what’s likely the race’s grand finale, visitors are invited to buy a $10 raffle ticket for a chance to see their ball beat out 1,000 others as it falls from a dump truck, rolls down the Brink Street hill and collects into a chute at the bottom.

“We are going to make it the best, biggest cheesiest event we can,” says Reckamp. “We’re sending it off with a bang.”

Johnny Appleseed Festival got its start 30 years ago when three downtown merchants – Steve Yopp of Steven Edwards Menswear and Ralph and Carole Kuhlman of Now You’re Cookin’ – sought a new way to bring patrons downtown. The festival’s name was just a fun fall theme until 2007, when a splice from an actual Johnny Appleseed tree was planted at the Colonel Palmer House, located less than a mile from downtown.

This year’s 30th annual event runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sept. 30 in downtown Crystal Lake. Parking is free in numerous lots around town.

“The world really needs more Johnny Appleseeds,” says Reckamp. “It’s such a staple in our community. I think people just love it.”