The Apple Pavilion

Indoor display to highlight faces and places of Sebastopol’s apple and grapes past

by Rollie Atkinson

Sonoma West Times & News

When the first Sebastopol Chamber of Commerce Apple Blossom Festival was held just after World War II, the local apple industry was at its absolute zenith.

When the orchard trees bloomed back then, all of Sebastopol’s surrounding hills were as solid white as if a snowstorm had just passed over. The fluffy blossoms filled over 14,000 acres of apple orchards. Today, only 2,000 acres remain, with many orchards now converted to winegrape vineyards.

There is a little-known earlier chapter about this apples-to-grape story, because the full story is actually ‘grapes to apples and back to grapes again.’ That’s because many of western Sonoma County’s original farmers grew grapes, berries, cherries and other crops long before they planted apple orchards.

That more complete story will be told in a visual display at this year’s Apple Blossom Festival at the Apple Pavillion, inside the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.

Cheri Marcucci, a great-great granddaughter of pioneer farmers, has mounted a diorama of old landscapes, photos, family names, apple crate art and other memorabilia. Her collection comes from her recent research for a short documentary film, “From Grapes to Apples to Grapes Again.

While her film will not be shown during the festival, Marcucci, her husband Phil and other apple old-timers will gather to share stories. Lee Walker, patriarch of the last fresh apple packing facility, is expected to attend.

This year’s Apple Blossom Festival will also serve as an unofficial reunion of the “Apple Corps,” a group of farm women who mounted homegrown marketing projects two generations ago when the apple industry began a slow decline.

Besides Marcucci, other Apple Corps members included Gail Dutton, Shirley Walker, Barbara Paul and the Kozlowskis, among others.

In the local apple industry’s heyday, there were 16 family-owned fresh apple packing houses, plus another seven larger commercial plants, according to Marcucci’s research. Apples for sauce, juice and vinegar were processed at eight different companies, the largest being the Sebastopol Cooperative Cannery.

In those days, the total apple crop exceeded 100,000 tons where recent year’s crops were just over 10,000 tons.

Processing Apples

Processing Apples

In the visual display at this year’s Apple Pavillion all the historical changes are depicted.

“When you start at the beginning,” said Marcucci, “you see that the local farmers had to change crops to make an economic living. When I was growing up we still grew cherries, berries and walnuts.”

On her husband’s ancestry farm along the Laguna, the first crop was grapes.

“Having had family in farming in the Sebastopol area for over 111 years as farmers our family members have experienced vineyards infested with Phylloxera, Prohibition, the stock market crash, the Great Depression, and World War II,” said Marcucci.

“I know people complain about all the vineyards now but if they knew more about the history I think they would understand about our local farming much better.

The Russian River Convivium of Slow Food International will be offering Gravenstein apple juice in the pavillion. The non-profit group is dedicated to preserving pre-technology agriculture and has a special project to preserve the Gravenstein apple, the jewel of Sebastopol’s apple industry.

Today Cheri and Phil Marcucci operate Marcucci Farms & Winery on Laguna Road. They make wine from their own vineyards and offer public tours and special al fresco dining experiences at their 109-year-old Russian River Valley homestead.

Special dates are set this summer for group gondola vineyard tours, a viewing of the 45-minute documentary film and a catered Italian feast. Details are available at the website www.marcuccifarms.com.