The Olde Tyme Peach Festival
Aug 31, 2017 03:33PM
● By Steven Hoffman
At the ripe old age of 24, Middletown's Olde Tyme Peach Festival keeps getting bigger and better every year, blending the town's past with its present in new and interesting ways.
The 2017 festival took place under gloriously sunny skies on Saturday, Aug. 19, as thousands of spectators turned out for a day filled with live music, games, arts activities, history demonstrations, and lots of food—especially peaches. The wealth of offerings makes the Olde Tyme Peach Festival a destination, and it now ranks among the largest events to take place in the area each year, attracting upwards of 30,000 visitors. It's easy to understand why.
From the moment the parade kicked off in the morning to the time the last merchant on Main Street closed for the evening, the event was a showcase of Middletown as both a history-rich community and one of the most vibrant towns in the region.
Peaches were everywhere, of course, but so, too, were smiles as people of all ages enjoyed coming together for the big community event.
Cochran Square was a hub of activity, with live music and dance routines being performed on the main stage just a few feet away. Throughout the day, people enjoyed food and beverages at Sully's Irish Pub.
Vendors came from all over the area to sell their wares. With thousands of people out for a day of fun, it was unique opportunity for merchants, artisans, and nonprofit organizations to connect with people. Many of the vendors offered food, a wide variety of handcrafted jewelry and clothing. One booth was set up to promote the M.O.T. Big Ball Marathon, which took place over Labor Day Weekend. The Big Ball Marathon raises money to assist individuals and families in need in the area. The M.O.T. All-Stars and the M.O.T. Basketball Camp had booths to provide information to prospective participants.
There were plenty of children's games and activities throughout the festival, including face-painting, visits from costumed characters, and inflatables to bounce around in.
On the front lawn of the Academy Building, the Victorians of Virtue and Valor were dressed in 1860s attire and offered demonstrations of games that were played by families of the Civil War period. Civil War reenactors did drills and fired their rifles. The Fort Delaware Cornet Band performed short concerts throughout the afternoon.
At the Gibby Center for the Arts, a special folk festival was taking place. There was live entertainment, including performances by Hannah Dale, Kira Alejandro, STR, and others. People could enjoy the art on display in the gallery exhibit or shop for a variety of artful, handcrafted items that were available.
Milton Downing, who is on the board of directors for the Gibby Center for the Arts, smiled as he surveyed all the offerings in the facility during the peach festival. He said that the peach festival offered the Gibby a chance to showcase the many exciting programs and activities that are available throughout the year. Downing is an artist himself, and some of his abstract paintings were on display.
The restaurants and shops in town were able to showcase their offerings to the visitors.
“This is a great event,” explained Mary Kate Church, who was standing not far from her shop, Femme Boutique, on Main Street, just before the business moved to a new, larger location. “It brings about 30,000 people to town. There are all these different vendors lined up through town and people are walking up and down Main Street. It's good for Middletown.”
The Olde Tyme Peach Festival is sponsored by the Mddletown Historical Society. Anyone who attends the event helps to support the operations of the Middletown Historical Society because proceeds from the peach festival are used to fund the society's work throughout the year. The Middletown Historical Society was founded in 1985 to promote the study and preservation of Middletown history. In 1994, the historical society and a group of business owners in town banded together to start the peach festival. The historical society has had a major role in planning the event ever since, and in recent years its popularity has skyrocketed.
On the second floor of the historic Middletown Academy Building, Alison Matsen was offering additional information to visitors about the exhibits that had been set up by the Middletown Historical Society. Matsen is one of the leaders of the Middletown Historical Society, and she helps curate some of the exhibits that the organization has opened to the public.
One of the current exhibits is “Downtown Abbey,” inspired by the popular television show “Downton Abbey.” The “Downtown Abbey” exhibit features items that illustrate what life was like in Middletown around the same time that the fictional show's events took place—approximately between 1912 and 1926. This exhibit was pieced together using items that belong to the Middletown Historical Society as well as collections from several local estates.
Another exhibit, “Reflections of Middletown,” showcases images of the men, women, and children who have called Middletown home through the years.
Upstairs was a permanent exhibit that is a recreation of 19th century schoolroom so that people can see what these old classrooms were like. Children can sit down at the old-fashioned desks and practice cursive writing.
Another exhibit highlights the importance of peaches to Middletown's development. The course of Middletown's history was certainly changed dramatically by peaches, which were the town's leading crop at a time when Delaware's communities were really growing. The decision to have the railroad pass through Middletown opened up the entire world to the area's peach producers. John P. Cochran and other large local landowners planted tens of thousands of peach trees, and between 1850 and 1875 there was much prosperity in Middletown and the surrounding areas because of the success of the peach industry. The fruit was sent out to New York, Boston, and many other markets via the railroad. Many of Middletown's most impressive homes were built as a result of the prosperity that came from the peach production.
Matsen was particularly proud of a new exhibit that just debuted called “Living Together.” This display highlights how people of different races and ethnicities have come together in Middletown. Matsen noted that the community has a long history of ethnic diversity, and she was very pleased that the Middletown Historical Society has increased its offerings about black history in the area.
“A lot of people have been interested in this exhibit,” Matsen said, explaining that it could be expanded in the near future.
Perhaps the best thing about the peach festival—even better than the peaches—is the camaraderie that develops as people and organizations and businesses come together to support an activity that involves so many different facets of the Middletown community.
Barbara Dixon, Pete and Joanne Kurych, Peg Atwell, and Vicki Dixon were selling some of the peach pies, peach cobbler, and peach mini-pies that they had spent days helping to make in preparation for the festival. They are part of a group of volunteers who are responsible for peeling all the peaches and baking all the pies that are sold to raise funds for the Jean Birch M.O.T. Senior Center, certainly one of the most valuable assets in the area. Approximately 800 pies are offered for sale to help raise money for the senior center. It takes a lot of work to make all those pies, but to the volunteers it is a labor of love and a service to the community.
“The peach festival is always a lot of fun,” Atwell said. “It's something that we like doing for the Jean Birch M.O.T. Senior Center.”
Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the Olde Tyme Peach Festival in Middletown.