LeBARON: Saralee Kunde and the shifts of the Harvest Fair
Published: Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 3:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 3:36 p.m.
They say that scent is the strongest of all memory triggers. I guess that's why any mention of the Harvest Fair comes with a memory of that building full of apples — red, yellow, green, striped apples — an olfactory delight.
But the scent of apples is fading fast. The Harvest Fair now has been marked for a remodel. And while we don't know fully what that means, it's clear there will be an even greater focus on wine and food, and an elimination of the many competitive exhibits and family ag-related activities reminiscent of country fairs.
That's why I went to visit Saralee Kunde last week. She knows as much about the Harvest Fair as anyone. She's been involved in all kinds of ways since it began.
“First it fizzled, then it was a huge success,” she says, summing up 37 years of Harvest Fairs.
Is it fizzling again?
You won't hear that from Saralee. She's not a bad news person. More like matter-of-fact. “The times are changing,” she says. “I wish they weren't changing, but they are.”
The credit for founding the Harvest Fair is easy to assign.It was “Mr. Jamison,” Saralee says, still calling J.W. “Wes” Jamison by his teacher's honorific after all these years. The Santa Rosa ag teacher who was also the livestock manager for the county fair, knew that the timing of that fair didn't work for agriculture, particularly apples. The early July opening was set by the racing board and was far too early for crops.
“I think he went to Boonville, to the Mendocino County Fair and Apple Show and saw what a fall event could look like,” said Saralee.
The first Harvest Fair, she recalls, “was patched together after the 1975 county fair closed in the middle of July.”
The entries and farm exhibits rolled in. “All it took was a visit from Mister Jamison. Most of them had been his students. The apples, everyone remembers those apples, came from the Duttons, the Walkers, the Imwalles, Darrel Hurst at Twin Hills.”
The wine competition started slowly, but grew as the somewhat timid challenges to Napa became bolder. Another Jamison student, Rich Thomas, found the judges.
Saralee laughs, remembering that the first wine tasting came off under the aegis of her uncle Ray Wilson's liquor license (he owned the Hideaway in Petaluma) because it was put together too late for the fair to get one of its own.
It was touch-and-go for the first four years, with several county fair directors insisting at every meeting that it be scrapped. But a slim majority of supporters prevailed and, in 1979, Saralee took over as coordinator and a separate board, for just the Harvest Fair, was created.
It was a working board. Members did everything from pound the cash register at the wine sales and empty spit buckets at the tastings to cleaning up after the guest chefs and teaching small children to milk goats.
So, in the '80s, everything came together — not only wine and apples but food, a 10K run that started and ended on the grounds, the Grape Stomp (which took on a life of its own), hayrides, sheep dogs, local music, Jane Engdahl's wacky contests and all those exotic animals like llamas, emus, pot-bellied pigs, miniature ponies and pygmy goats.
Children loved it. So did their parents.
But the wine-drinkers loved it more. And that's what has happened.
“The grape industry has taken over our lives,” Saralee says. As a woman who grew up milking cows on the family dairy to become one of the county's leading grape growers, she is in a position to know.
Wine leads the county's economy, with tourism, which goes hand-in-hand, a close second. And, in the words of some president or other, “It's the economy, stupid!”
Although she relinquished the coordinator's role to Sheila Quince in the late'80s, Saralee has kept in close touch with the issues. As a past president of the Sonoma County Fair who still sits on that board as well as the Harvest Fair board, she admits to mixed emotions, but knows that it can't endure
“Last year we had 3,200 entries and lost $70,000. We have to pay the apple growers to bring in the few we have. There just aren't that many anymore. We haven't been able to reimburse the wineries for the last five years.”
She also has her own ideas — like pushing the fair to November, a Thanksgiving harvest celebration. “It's right in the middle of picking,” she says, “Most grape growers can't even come.”
She would hope to keep the Grape Stomp — “Or do it at the county fair.” Many of the Harvest Fair family events, she suggests, could enhance the summer fair. And there's a hope that the Men's Garden Club might take on the pumpkin contest. “We have all these pumpkin patches to celebrate.”
The “new” Harvest Fair, then, “would focus on the end products of agriculture.” More food competitions, not only for chefs, but also for purveyors. And, of course, wine and more wine. “The wineries are eager to be there. They are making a name for themselves, she says. ”
If Saralee sounds over-the-top positive, no one who knows her will be surprised. She's one of the most positive people on this green earth. And nowhere is her “let's just get on with it” attitude more evident than in the current battle she is waging against cancer.
As she begins her second round of chemotherapy at UCSF, she's talking about how lucky she is to live so near such a great medical center, how she is looking forward to June 7, which will be her final treatment.
She excited about her Easter plans to take 50 or so friends and family in a chartered bus to sunrise services at the Two Rock Church, where her late mother, Lillian McClelland, known to all as “Sweet Lil” liked to go, and then on to San Francisco's Palace Hotel for Easter brunch.
“And I'll wear my Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it,” she laughs.
And that is so Saralee.
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