The first bite of a McIntosh apple “tastes like fall,” says Tamar Stanley, executive director of the Ravalli County Museum. She praised its firm, crisp flesh, and the juicy sweetness, that makes it perfect for pies.
All of those adjectives applied as well to Hamilton’s 33rd annual McIntosh Apple Day, held Saturday under the autumn-hued maples of the museum.
The weather was certainly crisp, but that didn’t stop the crowds from gathering for the event, which combined the usual Farmers Market, an expanded roster of craft vendors, and every kind of apple product you can imagine, from dried apple dolls to pork apple chutney barbecue.
It’s billed as “The Biggest Bake Sale under the Big Sky,” and until someone piles up 601 apple pies, to top the 600 sold Saturday, that title is secure.
McIntosh apple lore holds that it takes a freeze to bring out the sweetness in the apples, and after the last few frosty days they were undoubtedly at a flavorful peak.
The chemistry was also perfect for a community event, with sunshine, the first shades of fall colors, luscious aromas carried on a light breeze, and throngs of neighbors subtly elbowing their way to the front of the line to buy hot coffee, pies, muffins, more hot coffee, kabobs, pastries, and hot apple cider.
“We’re here for the works,” said Erma Badt, who also views it as a social occasion. “Think of all the people you see — that’s what we came down for.
McIntosh Apple Day is the museum’s biggest fundraiser of the year, and accounts for close to 25 percent of its annual budget, according to Stanley. “It’s the kind of fundraiser that brings the community together,” she noted, saying that the money goes to “making the resources of the museum available to the public.”
“It’s their local museum,” she emphasized.
The money raised is used to provide educational programming for school visits, which the museum provides at no charge.
She’s proud of what the museum board, staff, and volunteers have accomplished with the resources they have. “We’ve really raised the level of what we do, the museum experience that we provide.”
Museum board president Dan Rothlisberger is also proud of what they accomplish with the support of the community at McIntosh Apple Day. “It gives people a reason to come back a second or third time.”
The experience on offer Saturday morning was certainly a treat for all the senses.
The bubbling cauldron of apple butter gave off waves of apple essence, scented with cinnamon, attended by Culinary Arts students from Trapper Creek Job Corps Center.
“It’s always been my dream,” said Micah Osborne, of studying to be a chef. “I just never dreamed I’d be doing it at a fair.”
Nor, probably, did he expect to be wielding a giant wooden stirring paddle, while hovering close to the propane burner to keep warm.
The cold temperatures were a mixed blessing, but they kept the bees and yellowjackets away from the cider press, where Boy Scouts from Troop 1976 were serving up samples. For those who liked what they tasted, Swanson’s Mountain View Orchard was located conveniently nearby to sell cider by the jug.
The craft show spilled over into Legion Park, where Diane Thomas-Rupert’s woolen goods caught the eye of numerous shivering passers-by. “Maybe the shade structure isn’t such a good idea, today,” she allowed.
On the courthouse lawn, museum volunteers conducted a raffle for items donated by vendors at the event, and a silent auction for merchandise from local businesses, all in support of the museum.
“Cabin Fever” played vintage rock ‘n’ roll for the coffee-toting, be-jacketed visitors jamming the event. As they sang Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” the lyrics describing how “the crowd had rushed together, trying to keep warm,” seemed particularly apt.
Abby Mazade, teacher of Hamilton High School’s Family and Consumer Sciences class, didn’t have any trouble keeping warm. Her students were among the 100-plus volunteers keeping the event running, selling apple pies, whole and by the slice, and serving cider, hot from the thermos. Moving 600 pies over the course of the day would keep them on the run without many breaks.
Rothlisberger did a lap around the event, taking it all in, but along with volunteers Joy and Gary Hettrick, the apple butter is his project.
Asked what he tastes when he bites into a Bitterroot McIntosh apple, Rothlisberger conjured up “the sweetness of it all.” Like Tamar Stanley, he might just as well have been talking about the 33rd annual McIntosh Apple day.