The Commons was once again packed with crowds of students, visitors and Ithaca residents this weekend — lining up for apple cider donuts and snapping pictures of caramel apples at the 39th annual Apple Harvest Festival.
AppleFest bloomed across several blocks downtown, offering a variety of apple-related products, from apple cider to apple crisps and barrels of apples themselves. Beyond the food, the festivities extended to dancers entertaining the crowd, visitors walking the Commons in balloon hats and families participating in carnival games.
Organized by the Downtown Ithaca Alliance and presented by the Tompkins Trust Company, AppleFest was hosted Friday through Sunday. Many attendees were glad that the festival, with crowds and lines of vendors, came back for another Ithaca fall after a downsized festival in 2020 — though some said they were concerned about unmasked crowds.
“Last year, there were literally six vendors and they were all by the aisle near the stage. It was a small event. This [year’s festival] is normal AppleFest level,” said Amara Steinkraus, a vendor for her family farm LittleTree Orchards, which grows and produces the fruit used for their cider donuts and apple cider.
Students who have previously attended AppleFest also said they’re glad they came to this year’s festival. Many pointed to the long lines, full of visitors excited to purchase cider donuts, handmade kettle corn and freshly made lemonade as indicators of a return to normalcy.
“I came to AppleFest for my freshman and sophomore year. I didn’t come when it was the COVID AppleFest, but it’s good to see everyone back. It really feels like things are going back to normal and it’s promising,” said Valerie Kong ’22. “I can’t think of anything that is actually missing compared to pre-COVID AppleFest.”
Taking into account the health and safety of the visitors and vendors, the DIA encouraged all attendees to be vaccinated and wear masks when six-foot distancing wasn’t possible. All vendors were encouraged to be vaccinated and were required to wear masks when on festival grounds.
“All the staff are wearing masks. We’re all being diligent about hand sanitizing and washing our hands,” Steinkraus said, while moving crates of apples and cider at the back of the Little Tree Orchards stand. “We’re all doing our best to stay safe and glad to see a lot of people wearing masks and staying safe as well.”
Despite these regulations, some visitors said they felt enforcing these safety policies was another story, pointing to a lack of masking compliance from some vendors.
In addition to food and handmade crafts stalls, AppleFest also featured live entertainment at the Bernie Milton Pavillion. Dance performances ranged from Ithaca’s Community School of Music and Arts belly dance troupe Mirage to a step and double-dutch troupe like Greater Ithaca Activities Center Jumpers. Local musical performances included a variety of genres, such as instrumental music from Fall Creek Brass Band as well as rock and blues music from Go Gone.
Student groups from nearby schools also performed in the festival, including Ithaca College’s all-male acapella group Ithacappella who performed on West State Street. James Williams, a member of Ithacappella, said he was thrilled to sing in front of a crowd again.
“It’s nice to see people out and about and hear the other groups perform,” Williams said. “It’s really cool seeing people make music and present to a live audience again.”
Anisha Datt, a student at Fordham University who was visiting Ithaca for the weekend, said she enjoyed that the festival was more than just a celebration of apples.
“I think [AppleFest] is really cool,” Datt said. “I really like that there is an apple portion of the festival but also a carnival portion as well as the incorporation of physical stores and vendors that sell crafts and other foods.”
Many attendees like Tommy Zieger, an Ithaca College student, said they were happy to continue supporting local businesses and farmers, celebrating Ithaca tradition and sharing their love for apples.
“It’s really cool to see a lot of people from different areas celebrating apples,” Zieger said. “AppleFest is an Ithaca tradition and everyone has to experience it. There’s just some things that you must experience living in Ithaca and this is definitely one of them.”
Steinkraus noted that the Apple Harvest Festival draws thousands of visitors to the Apple Harvest every year for a taste of fall before Ithaca winter storms in.
“People like to have a big celebration of the harvest before the winter comes,” Steinkraus said. “Winter can become intense in Ithaca so people like to come out and have fun. We live in a state that produces a lot of apples and apple products so there is a plentiful amount for people to taste, try, buy and see.”
For first-time visitors and students like Maxwell Pang ’25, the festival gave them an opportunity to explore Downtown Ithaca.
“I was really excited to attend AppleFest because I heard such good things about the lively and inclusive atmosphere,” Pang said. “I’m glad I showed up because I got to explore beyond the Cornell campus. I feel more connected to the community of Ithaca.”