Kelseyville Pear Festival puts Lake County crop in the spotlight

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If You Go

What: 27th Kelseyville Pear Festival

When: Sept. 28

Where: Main Street, Kelseyville

Activities: Parade, musicians and dancers on three stages, more than 100 craft and food vendors and numerous special exhibits.

The night before: A Farm to Fork dinner is held from 5 to 11 p.m. Sept. 27.

Information: pearfestival.com

Thousands of people will soon arrive in the farming town of Kelseyville in Lake County ready for pearful activities such as pear pie eating, pear margarita and cider sipping, and an old-fashioned, small-town parade during the Kelseyville Pear Festival.

Crowds will line Main Street on Sept. 28 to watch a procession of farmers trundle along on antique tractors, Los Amigos Dancing Horses, Belgian draft horses and kids on decorated ponies, while Girl Scouts, farm families and local dignitaries ride on floats, in a bright-red stagecoach and on horse-drawn wagons.

The festival has come a long way during its 27 years, said Cindy Bain, the event’s chairperson.

“The first pear harvest festival, in 1993, was just a street dance and a scarecrow contest, with only 12 booths, and fewer than 2,000 visitors,” she said. “This year, we expect to welcome 10,000-12,000 people, and we’re ready for them, with about 150 vendors of food and drink, and fine art and crafts. On the night before, we kick off with a ‘Farm-to-Fork’ dinner and dance right down the middle of Main Street, followed by a 7 a.m. pancake breakfast at the fire station on Saturday.”

Bain, a fifth-generation Lake County native who plans to take her baby grandson, Max, said the local tradition would not be possible without the goodwill of the residents who pitch in.

“Our one-day celebration is still run by volunteers only — 24 of them — and me,” she said.

The Ely Stage Stop and Country Museum lends the Pear Festival authentic, old-timey character with a circa-1800s covered wagon and various century-old vehicles.

The museum also sets up an antique tractor and vintage engine exhibit, located at the Kelsey Creek Bridge, all day on Saturday, with “climb-aboard” fun and blacksmith demonstrations. In his late 80s, bewhiskered Dieter Renker, patriarch of family-owned Renker Farms, will be on hand to show off his rare tractor engine.

Representing local rural traditions dating to the 1800s, handmade quilts will be on display and for sale at the festival. Quilts are also on view in vibrant style on Main Street buildings, and throughout the county on the sides of barns, wineries, businesses and farm stands. The Lake County Quilt Trail consists of about 125 brightly-colored quilt blocks, each 8-by-4 feet square, seen along local country roads.

Pioneer history and agricultural heritage will be on parade, too, in the main, white-tented Pear Pavilion, where fruit crate labels, historical photos, and vintage farm equipment are displayed.

The pear’s rich history in Lake county dates to the Gold Rush era, when the Bartlett pear, developed in 17th-century England, was brought to California by fortune-seekers.

Louis Henderson planted the county’s first large-scale commercial Bartlett pear orchard in 1891, and the Henderson family and others still farm many of the same trees today.

“The Lake County Bartlett is a premium pear because of our microclimate and altitude,” said fourth-generation grower Diane Henderson. “It is also a beautiful pear with its long-necked, classic pear shape.”

Planting 25 acres of pears in 1915, the local Thornton family survived the Great Depression and the loss of the patriarch, JJ, and eventually expanded their orchards, becoming famous for the development of a new variety, the Hailey Red pear.

If You Go

What: 27th Kelseyville Pear Festival

When: Sept. 28

Where: Main Street, Kelseyville

Activities: Parade, musicians and dancers on three stages, more than 100 craft and food vendors and numerous special exhibits.

The night before: A Farm to Fork dinner is held from 5 to 11 p.m. Sept. 27.

Information: pearfestival.com

Today, JJ’s great-grandson, Dan Thornton, works in the same shop that his ancestor built. “Now, there is just the two of us, Dad and me,” he said. “We’re adjusting to modern farming in ways my great-grandfather and grandpa could never have imagined. Those first 25 acres that JJ planted are still flourishing, and so is our family.”

In 1974, Toni Scully and her husband established Scully Packing Co., which now processes fruit for about 20 local family farms, and employs more than 450 people at peak harvest time. She said the region is particularly suited to growing the festival’s star fruit.

“Our micro-climate of cool nights and hot days gives those Bartlett pears a real boost in flavor, and also in sugar content,” she said. “(This) creates the high shelf life that makes them ship so well and hold their amazing texture and taste. Our county grows about 25% of all the Bartletts raised in California, and a third of all fresh pears shipped from the state. Bartletts are Lake County’s bread-and-butter.”

Like many of the region’s other pear growers, the Scully family business is a multigenerational operation.

“We’re proud that among our workers are generations of local families, including the teenaged grandkids,” she said. “Our sons Pat and Andy are the leading lights of the business now, although my husband, Phil, is still ‘First Salesman.’ ”

Along with her cohorts from the Lake County California Women for Agriculture, Toni Scully bakes about 100 pear pies and more than 400 pear turnovers to sell at the festival. Also on offer will be pear shakes, pear ice cream, and oceans of pear cocktails and fruity sparkling drinks; plus, locally produced microbrews and wines.

Several wineries will offer generous samples in the Pear Festival Wine Tent and at Main Street tasting rooms. Among them, Wildhurst Vineyards creates wines from grapes planted alongside pear orchards farmed by fifth-generation grower Myron Holdenried, a descendant of pear pioneer Louis Henderson.

Though pears have a long history as a local cash crop, grapes have taken on a larger role in Lake County’s agricultural economy. About four times as much land is devoted to wine grapes as to pears, according to the Lake County Department of Agriculture.

At the pear festival, the two crops appear side-by-side.

“We planted our orchards in 1926, and vineyards in 2003,” said Charlene Gayaldo, a member of one of the three families who own Mt. Konocti Winery in Kelseyville. “Although we have several wine varieties, ours is the only sparkling pear wine produced in the county. It’s called Lady of the Lake, a pale golden, soft and bubbling creation made from a blend of Bartlett and Bosc pears.”

Along with many fruit growers in the area, the Carpenter, Gayaldo and Oldham families at Mt. Konocti expanded into the wine industry and, in 2007, began bottling their own wines.

According to Gayaldo, their old pear packing shed is now a museum- like wine tasting room and event center, rich with photos, antique autos, and artifacts from 90 years of agricultural history. On the side of the building is a vivid, blue-and-white painted quilt square named “Lady of the Lake,” one of many on the local Quilt Trail.

Gayaldo said, “We’ll be pouring sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, and tempranillo in the Wine Tent at the Pear Festival.”

Furnishing a lively musical background for noshing on savory pear treats, taking in the parade, and indulging in refreshing libations at the Pear Festival will be the sounds of fiddlers, rock bands, jazz, and “golden oldies” music on three stages. And finally, the must-have selfie for all festival revelers is in front of the 9-foot-tall Bartlett pear.

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