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By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
There was an old love song that began “I’ll be with you in apple blossom time.” For Smithfield beginning in 1960, the phrase had quite a different meaning.
The Rhode Island Fruit Growers Association and the Rhode Island State Grange sponsored an event during early May, usually near Mother’s Day, that was meant to draw attention to the apple industry in the state, much of which was concentrated in the local area.
In its heyday the Apple Blossom Festival attracted large numbers of people from far beyond the town and the neighboring agricultural communities of Scituate and Glocester. It was an annual occasion that literally put Smithfield on the map.
The weekly newspaper printed an illustrated graphic map that noted the location of the apple farms and did stories and blurbs about blossom time. The part of town leading from Austin Avenue to Colwell Road to Old Mapleville Road to Mann School Road to Swan Road and back to Pleasant View Avenue was dubbed the Apple Blossom Trail.
Thousands of people would come from other regions of the state to drive the circuit and view the profusion of trees in bloom, often stopping to take family photos with the sea of white petals as a backdrop. The celebration culminated in a fair with entertainment, food, and the crowning of an Apple Blossom Queen.
The candidates for queen had to be either members of the Grange or daughters of a member of the fruit growers’ organization. Once selected, the queen’s duties included such things as representing the sponsoring organizations at the Springfield Fair (officially called the Eastern States Exposition, but now known universally as The Big-E), appearing at the Rocky Hill Fair in Rhode Island and also at local functions like May breakfasts and such. She and sometimes members of her court also presented the governor with a bushel of fine Rhode Island apples in the fall. Among the perks she received were a trophy, a savings bond, a sash, and a crown.
In 1967 Charlotte Steere, now Charlotte Booker, was chosen Apple Blossom Queen. She remembers it fondly enough, but does confide that at first “I did it because my parents wanted me to be in it.”
Her father Stephen Steere was both a Grange member and a fruit grower and had been leader of both organizations. So, it was quite natural that he and her mother might urge their daughter to participate. Charlotte’s first foray into the pageant was at age 14, and she says that wasn’t so much fun, but by the time she won the crown, which in her day had to be turned over to the successor the following May, it was enjoyable.
“The year I was crowned, Salty Brine congratulated me on the air the next morning,” she recalls. She adds that among her duties during the tours, “I stood in the orchard between Jaswell’s and Matteo’s [on Swan Road] and handed out lollipops to kids.”
She remembers that the actual trail was marked by wooden signs in the shape of arrows. They indicated the direction to proceed to see the apple trees in bloom. She thinks that perhaps her son Jeff Booker might still have some of them in the barn on the family farm, which he now owns.
The pageant typically took place at 3 p.m. and by 5 o’clock the sponsors had readied a buffet or potluck supper to which the public was welcome. Even though it was May and not the harvest season, it would be surprising if apple desserts such as pies and turnovers were not featured.
The festival, which reportedly first took place in an outing hall at the Matteo farm, proved to be a moveable feast. It was later held at Greenville Grange and the McCabe School.
When Charlotte Steere won the title it was held at Smithfield High School, but 10 years later when Charlotte’s youngest sister, Katherine, followed in her footsteps and was chosen queen in 1977 the event had moved to Chepachet Grange, part of an effort to include the nearby communities which were home to apple orchards as well as Smithfield.
One variable that produced anxiety for the organizers of the celebration was the lack of certainty regarding the actual dates when the blossoms would be in full flower. Depending on weather conditions the bloom can occur anytime from the last days of April through Memorial Day, but most often takes place during the first two weeks of May.
In 1978 Howard King, the county agent for the University of Rhode Island Extension Service in Greenville, predicted that Mother’s day was when the blossoms would appear that year.
In a short piece in the Observer he noted that peak viewing only lasted three or four days, “so if it’s a nice day Sunday, Mom might appreciate a drive through Appleland to view the blossoms”.
Typically during the life of the Apple Blossom Trail and its attendant festival, hordes of visitors to the orchards took his advice, or more likely read about the affair in the newspapers or heard promotions for it on radio or TV and decided to come out and see the spectacle for themselves.
The fruit growers loved the attention because more and more of them were selling their crops directly to the public at the farm in an effort to increase profits by cutting out the middle man and avoiding the wholesale markets as much as possible.
By visiting the orchards and enjoying the chance to take photographs and see where the apple crops came from, the consumers were primed to return in the autumn and buy some fruit right off the same trees they were marveling at in May. For a time it was a boon for all involved; so much so that it even sparked a competing event sponsored by a grower who felt that some pageant participants were not strongly enough connected to the apple-producing community.
Today, the once ballyhooed rite of springtime is a distant memory. The number of active apple farms in town has shrunk to a few, but the evidence of the former celebration which the community gloried in remains embedded in things like street and business names.
Blossom Trail Orchards on Colwell Road, for instance, most certainly was named for the tour route that went right by its door a scant few feet away. Established by the late Joseph Connetti, a master of the Grange, to provide sliced and processed apples to bakers and commercial kitchens just about the time the festival was born, the business is still going under the ownership of his son, Donald Connetti.
“I’m sure he named it after the Apple Blossom Trail,” Donald says, but I don’t remember much about it besides that.”
Full disclosure: Charlotte Steere Booker and her sister Katherine Steere Berard and the writer are first cousins.