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Middletown Life

Middletown’s Olde Tyme Peach Festival turns 20

Jan 09, 2015 04:24PM ● By Kerigan Butt

What would the Peach Festival be without peaches?

If you were one of the people who turned out on Aug. 17 to enjoy the music, games, and food (especially the peaches) at the Olde Tyme Peach Festival this year, then you did much more than have a day of fun. You also helped the Middletown Historical Society continue its operations for another year.

“We rely on the Peach Festival for a lot of our operating income each year,” explained David Matsen, a member of the Middletown Historical Society. “It’s important to our survival.”

Matsen said that the proceeds generated by the Peach Festival allow the historical society to maintain the exhibits and collection at the Middletown Academy, to bring in speakers for monthly programs, and to have a historian researching local history each Friday—all essential functions of the active historical society.

The 2013 Old Tyme Peach Festival was the 20th anniversary for the event and, in Matsen’s words it was “bigger and better than ever.”

He credited the arrival of Brian Rickards seven years ago with helping to grow the Peach Festival into what it is today. Rickards serves as the chairman of the committee that organizes the Peach Festival.

“He’s had so many ideas about how to increase the participation in the event, and to attract sponsors. That’s been very important to us,” Matsen said.

Rickards said that one of his objectives as chairman is to maximize the number of vendors that can take part in the event.

“I measured the entire town inch by inch to make sure we weren’t losing any space,” Rickards explained, adding that about 300 vendors participated this year.

Vendors came from all over the area to sell their wares. With tens of thousands of people out for a day of fun, the Peach Festival offers a unique opportunity. The Antique Station, which is based in St. Georges, Del., was one of them. There was a selection of antique items for sale, but representatives from the Antique Station also used the opportunity to promote the business and all its offerings.

The Delaware 87ers, based in Newark, took the opportunity to introduce themselves to the people in the area. The team is playing in the NBA Development League and is debuting in 2013 with a season that starts in November and runs through April.

“Things are going well,” said Matt Youngs, an account executive with the Delaware 87ers who was manning the team's booth at the festival. “Everybody is thrilled about it.”

There were dozens of food vendors interspersed with the retailers, selling festival favorites like ice cream, pizza, hamburgers, and French fries. There were also dozens of community groups and non-profit organizations that set up booths to make people aware of their causes.

“It’s a great day for any non-profit to be out there,” Rickards added.

Even the weather conditions leading up the Peach Festival were favorable. Rickards noted that “the peaches are just huge this year. The quality this year is better than the last. We can thank Mother Nature for that.”

Rickards said that the addition of all the live entertainment helped bring more people to the festival. A main stage featured numerous performers throughout the day. The Premier Centre for the Arts had a tent set up outside, and the Everett Theatre also offered live entertainment. The car show, which debuted in 2012, is a popular attraction, too.

As the Olde Tyme Peach Festival has grown, an opportunity has developed for the event to share some of the proceeds with local non-profit organizations.

This year, they were able to offer assistance to Our Daily Bread, a new food kitchen in town. Our Daily Bread is an organization made up exclusively of volunteers who work to provide lunches to those who need them in the Middletown, Odessa, and Townsend communities. The lunches are held from noon to 1:30 p.m. on the first and third Mondays of the month in the Dale Memorial U.M. Church located at 143 E. Lake Street in Middletown.

“We gave them room in the non-profit area,” Rickards said, “and we also provided them with an area where they can collect canned goods.”

A contribution was also made to the Middletown High School Marching Band, which was raising money for a trip to London later in 2013.

Rickards said that he was pleased that Middletown's largest event also helps others in the area.

“It’s nice to give back to the community,” said Rickards, “and to highlight these special groups that work very hard throughout the year.”

While there are many games and activities at the Peach Festival, history, and by extension the Middletown Historical Society, remains a focal point of the event.

“The historical society and some of the merchants started the festival in 1994,” Matsen explained. “The historical society has always been the major organizer of the event.”

“I want to make sure that history is always front and center,” said Alison Matsen who, like her husband, is a member of the Middletown Historical Society.

The Matsens were part of the group that planned and organized the historical displays that were showcased in the Middletown Historical Society's home in the Middletown Academy building.

Alison Matsen said that one exhibit that was new this year was inspired by the popular television show “Downton Abbey.

“The idea behind Downtown Abbey is that we’re showing what was happening in Middletown around the same time as the show,” she explained. “It’s amazing what the similarities are with the fashions.”

The Downtown Abbey exhibit was carefully pieced together using items that belong to the Middletown Historical Society and collections from several local estates. A clipping from the local newspaper about the sinking of the Titanic, for instance, is a nod to one of the first major events to have an impact on “Downton Abbey.” There is a letter that a World War I soldier wrote home that illustrates what soldiers and their families faced at the time, reminiscent of the letters written by characters on the show. There is a wedding outfit from 1918, and Downton Abbey has certainly had its share of weddings.

“There are lots of parallels between Downton Abbey and these people,” Alison Matsen said.

Another exhibit in the museum gave visitors a look at how education has changed in Middletown through the years.

The historical society also put together a display that traces the history of growing peaches in the Middletown area, and the impact that the crop had on the community. It is not an overstatement to say that the course of Middletown's history was changed by peaches. The decision to have the railroad pass through town opened up the entire world to Middletown's peach producers. John P. Cochran and the other large local landowners planted tens of thousands of peach trees and, between 1850 and 1875, prosperity came to Middletown and the surrounding areas as the fruit was shipped to New York, Boston, and other markets by the railroad. Many of Middletown's most impressive homes were the result of the prosperity that came from peach production.

The large exhibit titled “What a Difference 50 Years Makes,” which originally debuted in 2011, depicts life in the Middletown area at fifty-year intervals throughout history. This exhibit drew a lot of interest from visitors. The Middletown Historical Society will soon be changing over this display to one that is based on Middletown going off to war.

David Matsen, said that he remains involved year after year because of the closeness of the committee that works on these projects.

“It’s very collegial,” he said. “We’ve been doing the festival for 20 years and most of the people have been involved for most of that time.”

A highlight of the Old Tyme Peach Festival each year is the participation of the Victorians of Virtue and Valor, a group that works to inspire the love and knowledge of American history through various programs. Members of the group are typically stationed on the front lawn of Middletown Academy for the Peach Festival. Abigail Harting, 26, was one of the founding members of the group almost a decade ago. The group organizes several events each year, in addition to making presentations to school children and youth groups.

“We decided to go with more of a carnival theme this year,” Harting said of the activities at the 20th annual Peach Festival.

Indeed, with all the games and activities in this area, the front lawn of Middletown Academy resembled a carnival.

Brian O’Shaughnessy, a member of the Victorians of Virtue and Valor for the last seven years, taught people how to play the nine pins game that was popular in colonial times. A few members of the group demonstrated how muskets worked. There was a fashion show for dolls. Charlotte McIntyre and Kristina Powell organized a puppet theater show, giving young visitors a chance to re-tell the story of Cinderella using one of the most popular forms of entertainment during colonial times.

“Young children would recreate the stories that their parents were going to see at the theater,” Harting explained.

McIntyre said that even children raised with iPads and constant access to computer games can appreciate the old-fashioned method of storytelling that a puppet theater allows.

“It really engages the children,” she said. “It’s wonderful to give them a chance to be like kids from the past.”

McIntyre and Powell agreed that the children demonstrated great creativity when participating in the puppet theater.

“It allows the kids to play and it gives them the flexibility to make up their own story,” McIntyre said.

“I don’t think we told the same version of the story twice,” Powell added.

Peaches, of course, are prominently featured throughout the event.

A steady stream of people lined up for Peach cobbler at the Gibby Center gallery. Outside the Forest Church, cups of complimentary peach punch were being handed out. A volunteer team at the MOT Senior Center spent days trying to meet the demand for peach pies

“We probably sold 700 products—300 pies, over 200 cobblers, and 200 miniature pies,” said Cecilia Rozumalski, the executive director of the MOT Senior Center.

Rozumalski said that there were between 40 and 50 volunteers peeling peaches and another handful rolling dough or making the topping in the days leading up to the event. Just as Matsen said that the Peach Festival is important to the historical society, Rozumalski said that the sales from the Peach Festival are very important to the senior center.

“It’s critical,” she said. “This is our largest fundraiser. It is a fabulous partnership for us with the both the historical society and the Middletown High School—they let us bake the pies there.”

Rozumalski said that those who volunteer the time to bake the pies are usually members of the senior center or local students who are taking culinary arts classes. The money raised during the Peach Festival is used to offset the costs of the transportation program that the senior center offers. This is further evidence that, after twenty years of evolving, the Olde Tyme Peach Festival is much more than a fruitful day of fun and food. It is also a day when an entire community comes together.

To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email [email protected]

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