By Khalida Sarwari
‘Got nothing against a big town,’ John Mellencamp belts out in his 1985 hit, but it’s not where he belonged, he sings. ‘My bed is in a small town.” And that, he wanted us to know, was good enough for him.
For all the excitement and thrills big cities typically offer, they often lack the charm small towns tend to embody. So what you’d be exchanging for a bizarre or humorous sighting on the subway or light rail, for example, could be a familiar face at the coffee shop or more green space.
It’s little wonder then that friendly faces and orchards are the biggest selling points of the Saratoga Historical Foundation’s Blossom Festival, which takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 18 at the Saratoga Heritage Orchard and Civic Center, 13777 Fruitvale Ave., Saratoga.
The annual fair-like event draws hundreds from not only Saratoga’s own diverse neighborhoods, but folks from neighboring cities, too. A chance to “breathe in a small town for a day,” Mellencamp-style, is what brings most of them together.
“I come out because it’s a small-town event and it seems to fit Saratoga,” said Jack Mallory, a 50-year resident who’s been attending the event since 2010. “Saratoga’s not that big. I think a lot of the people who come out are those who care about the town. And in a way, we’re celebrating what Saratoga did 100 years ago when the orchards were in bloom throughout the Valley.”
Among the city’s oldest and most popular festivals, retired Congregational minister Edwin Sidney “Sunshine” Williams started the Blossom Festival in 1900 to celebrate the end of a two-year drought and the resulting beauty of the blossoming orchards. His envisioned an old-fashioned country picnic where people could gather to see Saratoga’s famous blossoms.
And that they did. In 1901, around 2,000 people, many of them by way of the Peninsular Interurban electric train, went to see a blossom tour of the orchards, have lunch, enjoy an afternoon of athletic events and explore area gardens.
The festival continued for the next 40 years, growing larger each year, at its peak drawing a crowd of more than 20,000, Saratoga Historical Foundation president Annette Stransky said. The onset of World War II brought the festival to a halt in 1941.
The event was re-established some years ago, its current incarnation taking form five years ago. The Blossom Festival of the 2000s hearkens back to the early days with a petting zoo and Girl Scouts handing out homemade paper flowers to guests.
“With this event, we want to commemorate and preserve the memory of the Blossom Festival and its historic celebration of Saratoga’s agricultural and community-focused life,” Stransky said. “The Valley was once the leading producer of prunes, and agriculture was an important industry. By holding the event in the Heritage Orchard and the surrounding area, we can remember not only the beauty of the orchards but the importance.”
This year’s event features activities for all ages, including live music, gourmet food trucks, antique cars, crafts, art, history and poetry. Taiko drums will open the event. Highlights include a question-and-answer session about pets, animals and garden issues with Mercury News columnist Joan Morris and original poetry readings with former poet laureates Parthenia Hicks, Dave Denny, Ann Muto and Jade Bradbury.
Authors Robin Chapman (“California Apricots: The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley”), Janet Schwind (“The South Skyline Story”), Lisa Newman (“For the Love of Apricots”) and Michael Brookman and Ian Sanders (“A Visual History of Pacific Congress Springs”) will stop by to sell and autograph their books.
The California Pioneers of Santa Clara County will show old films of Santa Clara Valley. The Warner Hutton House will display aerial photos of Saratoga, the history of the Blossom Festival and prune tasting courtesy of Novakovich Ranch, with local history books for sale.
Docents will lead history walks through the Heritage Orchard, and the West Valley Clean Water and Community Emergency Response Team will have displays.
Volunteers with the UC Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County have participated in the Blossom Festival since it was re-established in 2013, and will address gardening questions at their information table, as well as encourage children to learn about beneficial insects and plants and participate in plant-related activities at their children’s table.
Nancy Creveling, a member of the group, said the festival is an opportunity for her group to help people learn about sustainable gardening and Integrated Pest Management as well as helping to spark an interest in plants.
“Everyone loves being in the orchard and enjoying the beauty of the trees in bloom,” she said. “Each of us has a different favorite memory, but certainly talking with adults and children who are excited about gardening is always a highlight for us.”
There will be performances by Lee Anne Welch, winner of the Northern California Bluegrass Society Lifetime Achievement Award, and her students, as well as Dixieland jazz band Toot Sweet and Motown and pop group Dolce Musica. Karen Fedor and her ukulele band and members of the Spirit of Sunnyvale Marching Band will also provide old time tunes.
For children, as well as adults, there will be a wide range of activities including gardening, straw art, face painting, origami, straw figure making and flower plate making. The Saratoga Library will have a story time each hour in the Warner Hutton House, and the petting zoo will have a wide variety of baby animals to visit with.
Several Girl Scout troops will have activities for children as well. Monte Sereno resident Sandra Hoag leads two of the multiple participating troops. As in years past, her girls, ages 5 to 8, will operate craft tables, hand out flowers and there’s a slight chance they may bring those oh-so-addicting cookies to sell.
“It’s our way for the Girl Scout groups to give back to our community, because our community is very generous with us through our cookie season,” Hoag said.
The Santa Clara Valley Model A Ford Club and the Santa Clara Valley Model T Ford Club will showcase their cars while the Early Days Gas Engine and Tractor Association will display an assortment of old time engines and farm equipment.
Chuck Schoppe, a former president of the Saratoga Historical Foundation and longtime festival participant—going back to the days when it was called the Mustard Faire—is once again helping to attract and manage the mechanical displays and participants this year. He also created historic videos of Saratoga’s past that will be shown in the Warner Hutton House.
“One of my favorite memories is of Rick and Ann Waltonsmith, who used to bring their donkeys and a cart, giving kids rides around and through the orchard,” he said. A former mayor of Saratoga, Ann Waltonsmith now serves as the chairwoman of the Hakone Foundation.
For Schoppe, the festival is a chance to share the rich history of Saratoga and the Santa Clara Valley with others, he said. “Unless we offer that opportunity in an entertaining way to the public, they may never know what came before them in this beautiful part of the state.”
Local artisans will be selling their wares and artists from several local art organizations will display and sell original artwork and other items. Among them is longtime Saratoga resident and watercolor artist Kay Duffy, who’ll exhibit her floral blossoms and set up her easel in the Orchard to do some painting. “I love painting the orchard flowers,” she said. “It’s nice that Saratoga has saved some of those orchard trees.”
More than 15 costumed historical characters representing community leaders, artists and others from Saratoga’s past will be on hand to answer questions or take selfies with attendees. One of them will be Mallory, who year after year dons an old-fashioned outfit, hat and pocket watch to slip into the role of Sunshine Williams. He’ll be accompanied by his wife, Sue, who’ll play Francis, Williams’ second wife.
Members of the Santa Clara County Fire Department and Saratoga Fire District will also be on hand to greet people.
The event is produced by the Saratoga Historical Foundation and sponsored by the city of Saratoga, which provides community event grant funding each year to support the festival. The foundation is a nonprofit that operates the Saratoga History Museum.
Free parking is available in lot 4 at West Valley College from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit saratogahistory.com or call 408.867.4311.