And 5 Other Surprising Facts about California’s Oldest Harvest Festival
Paradise’s beloved Johnny Appleseed Days festival has long been a source of pride for the community, a place for residents and visitors to gather, vendors to share their wares, and the pioneering spirit of the Ridge to remain firmly planted in the hearts of all attendees.
For the last sixty-two years, the event has paid homage to John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, a traveling nurseryman who brought apple seeds to many of the eastern states in the first half of the 19th century. With Paradise’s rich history of apple orchards and fruit trees, the event is a fitting tribute to one of America’s kindest and most famous pioneers.
And yet: Johnny actually had nothing to do with the origins of this famous festival. The first celebration of what is now considered the oldest harvest festival in California was actually a celebration of a local saloon co-opted into a community hall by the local temperance society.
“It’s a fun story,” said Monica Nolan, Executive Director of the Paradise Chamber of Commerce, which oversees the event. “Back in 1888, the ladies of the temperance society managed to get ahold of ownership of the local saloon, something they wanted to do for a long time. The saloon had been at the corner of Clark Road and Elliott, where Riebes Auto Store is now. They rolled the saloon building across the street on logs to where the Rite Aid is now and rechristened it a community hall.”
Marion Israel, a contributor to a story from a 1964 edition of Tales of the Paradise Ridge summed up the satisfaction of those determined ladies:
“The neighborhood saloon had become the temperance headquarters for the community. So thankful were the majority of the people over a victory that a Harvest Home Festival was held. This first of the long series of festivals, fairs and apple shows in Paradise was a joyous success.” Records of the event included fruit exhibits, armfuls of wheat, corn on the cob, and everything from eggs to pumpkins. One attendee wrote: “We realized when we saw that produce that lots could be raised in Paradise.”
Mass fruit production was fairly new to the Ridge, which until the 1880s had been primarily a community of homestead farmers. Over the next few years, these small produce fairs continued, marking the change from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture.
Over the years, the event continued in various locations and under myriad names, and the rest, we could say, is history…but some of this history is just too much fun not to share. Here are 5 more interesting facts about the history of Johnny Appleseed Days in Paradise.
1. A festival dinner in 1905 cost $.25 a plate.
By 1905, the Ladies Aid Society was running the event for the benefit of the Paradise Polytechnic Institute (did you know we had one of those?). The event was officially renamed the “Fruit and Flower Festival.”
2. Conversations at the 1915 festival were instrumental in the creation of the Paradise Irrigation District.
The farmers knew they needed a better water system if production were to increase. “All day among those of more serious interest, residents and visitors, the talk was irrigation, irrigation, irrigation,” wrote Israel in a 1964 summary of the event. A year later: “The realization of the community’s hopes was the organization, in 1916, of the Paradise Irrigation District.” Unsurprisingly, fruit production grew exponentially afterward.
3. Errol Flynn, and the rest of the Warner Brothers Studios crew filming The Adventures of Robin Hood down in Bidwell Park, was a big draw for the 1937 festival.
In 1937, the event was officially sponsored by the Paradise and Allied Communities Chamber of Commerce (what is now the Paradise Ridge Chamber of Commerce) as a way for local growers to market their produce. Apparently, the Sunday evening program had no special program, so “an impromptu feature was the personal appearance of Mr. Errol Flynn, the Robin Hood of the film, who was called to the platform and spoke briefly.”
4. The 1937 festival also improved the Paradise Ridge infrastructure.
“The event,” said Nolan, “drew attention to the need for better roads for commerce and agriculture.” Traveling between Chico and Oroville and Gridley meant a need for regraded roadways, and a large number of attendees at the 1937 festival emphasized this need. A new farm-to-market road helped visitors return to the 1938 festival the following year.
5. The success of the Gold Nugget Days inspired the name change from Paradise Fall Festival to Johnny Appleseed Days in 1959.
And the name has stuck ever since!
Today, Johnny Appleseed Days represents a genuine commitment to community and the spirit of the Paradise Ridge. “Events are essential in community building,” said Nolan. “They define the character of a place, providing continuity and making the statement that our traditions vibrantly continue outside of the buildings that once housed them.”
After the fire, it was one of the most important events to return, with many local vendors and partners stepping up to continue traditions in ways that best supported a rebuilding community. “We have a proud legacy to uphold,” said Nolan. “The Paradise Ridge Chamber of Commerce is an organization of business people sharing local pride, professional expertise and a commitment to growth.” Local business partner Save Mart, for example, took over the baking and donation of pies, with DIY apple pie kits a new interpretation of an age-old dessert tradition.
The Chamber and volunteer Paradisians, for example, gather each year to make pie kits with apples from Noble Orchards, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Local business Save Mart bakes the pies as part of its “Pie Pavilion” sponsorship.
Like events for the “small fry” back in 1953, Johnny Appleseed himself will entertain stories in the Children’s Gamers Plaza, which will be sponsored by the Paradise Unified School District and give parents an opportunity to ask questions about education. Event line-ups include dancing, singing, and performances, much like they have for the last 135 years.
These days, Johnny Appleseed days is held at the Terry Ashe Recreation Center in Paradise, one of many locations over its lifetime. Whether you’re new to the festival or attending is a tradition for your own family, you’re sure to expect memories, unique products, and a full belly. Come on down for your own apple slice of Paradise history.