The apple of Johnston's eye

AppleFest set to kick off 32nd year this weekend

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For most people, the line that separates summer and fall comes at either the beginning of September or the equinox on Sept. 23.

That doesn’t go for the folks in Johnston, though. Mayor Joseph Polisena sees another occasion that marks the transition into autumn – the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Apple Festival.

“There’s a demarcation where it kind of splits and we know that fall’s coming,” he said. “Once the AppleFest happens, I know the fall’s here.”

The 32nd AppleFest, as it is widely known, will take place this Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Johnston Memorial Park as vendors and attendees from all over the state ring in the new season.

“I think what’s nice about it is it’s almost a little bit of a ‘say goodbye to summer,’” said NRICC Executive Director Lesley Palagi, who is in her fifth year hosting the event. “The Johnston community really knows Apple Festival. They went when they were a kid, they brought their kids, now their kids are bringing their kids. It’s like everyone in Johnston shows up. It’s a nice community gathering and there’s no admission.”

The event officially opens Saturday at 10 a.m., but the Johnston High School band and chorus will begin festivities with the opening ceremony at 10:50 a.m. Vocalist Christiana Rodi Caprarelli will take the stage at noon, an hour before the apple pie contest is set to be judged.

Submissions will be accepted between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. at the Washington Trust Tent, and winners will be announced at 2 p.m. Winners must be present to win, and three gift cards to Stop & Shop are on the line. First place will received $250, while second and third places will be awarded $150 and $100, respectively.

Just as the bakers leave their podium, the School of Rock from North Providence will put on a show at 2 p.m. Classic rock group Side by Each will bring the curtains down at 4 p.m.

Sunday’s schedule begins at 10 a.m. with the Shooting Stars Dance Center, followed by rock, folk and country ensemble Poor Man’s Gibson at 10:45 a.m. Johnston Dance and Performing Arts, or J-DAPA, will close the entertainment from noon to 1 p.m.

Delicacies will range from popcorn and homemade ice cream to apple cider floats and fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Palagi said AppleFest generates so much vendor interest that she would need four more acres than Johnston Memorial Park has to offer to accommodate every request.

Vendors still call seeking space, but they would be wise to wait until next year. Slots have been sold out since July, Palagi said.

“People are like, ‘Oh, we can’t wait. We’re so excited.’ The vendors are excited,” Palagi said. “Johnston Memorial Park is a small park, and we have it there because the mayor wants us to have it there and it’s an important part of Johnston. It’s always been there, it’s a tradition, but quite honestly we have so much vendor interest that we could maybe fill a couple more acres with vendors.”

Palagi said plenty of vendors recommit to the next AppleFest before the current one has concluded. She said planning for the next installment begins immediately after this weekend, and if all goes according to plan, it allows her and the Chamber to relax a bit the week before.

“There’s a lot of communication that goes into coordinating everything, but it’s all on an action plan and we just mark it off,” Palagi said. “It’s kind of automatic. So it’s a lot of work at the backend, but the front end, the weekend we’re there on site, we don't have a lot to do … This week coming up, I’m looking at a nice, clear calendar so if any issues or concerns come up we have plenty of time this whole week to deal with those.”

Free parking with shuttle service is offered at Johnston High School, with the Johnston Police Explorers volunteering to help coordinate traffic and provide other assistance. Polisena lauded their contributions, saying they help ensure the safety of AppleFest vendors and patrons.

“I think it brings people together,” Polisena said. “There’s obviously over 20,000 people that come through. I think it puts our town in the spotlight, and the vendors, obviously they get to put their products out there, and it’s just fun. It’s a great family get-together. It’s safe, you don’t have to worry about looking over your shoulders … It’s just a good family-fun time. It’s a tradition that everybody looks forward to.”

While AppleFest serves as the dividing line between summer and fall in Johnston, the weather hasn’t complied the past couple years. Palagi said the previous few events have seen temperatures in the 90s, but this weekend is trending more toward the mid-to-high 70s with consistent sunshine.

“So we’re kind of hoping for a cooler weekend,” Palagi said. “I think the general feel is let’s get out and be out and be outside before New England winter hits us.”

Polisena, who will provide opening remarks this weekend, hopes for the same as well.

“We’re going to get some decent weather, so that’s good,” Polisena said. “The man up in the sky’s watching over us. It’s a safe, family fun place to come. It’s great for the town, it’s great for the vendors and being New England, we always look forward to picking apples and stuff. So it kind of kicks off the fall season.”

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