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Small towns help maintain the vitality of whatever place we call “home.” Even if we only know them from a distance, their very existence gives us a mental respite from the endless activity of our cities. To survive, small towns need to adapt as the industries that employ people lose favor with the public, are shut down, undergo consolidations, or get moved elsewhere.
The photos shown here were taken at the Apple Butter Festival in a single town: Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, the county seat of Morgan County. The festival has operated annually, without interruption, since 1974, making 2019’s festival the 46th. Its home-town highlights have included a parade, turtle races, bakeoff, best beard contest, a pig call, and food and arts vendors.
The festival was inspired by people who remembered the town’s short-lived Tomato Festival, which began in 1937 to celebrate the county’s tomato industry and honor the collective struggle to emerge from the Great Depression. That Festival was suspended in 1941 after entry into World War II. When the tomato industry didn’t recover after the war, neither did the festival.
In the early 1970s, people who remembered the Tomato Festival began talking about recreating it with a different focus. A boy with fond memories of riding on a festival float had by then become editor of the local newspaper, The Morgan Messenger. His involvement helped energize and draw community support for staging the town’s first Apple Butter Festival.
The festival honors the many local industries that have come and gone. Apple and peach orchards occupied substantial acreage in the late 1800s. After eighty years of operation by one family, the county’s fruit-processing plant shut down in the early 1970s. In the 1890s, mining silica sand began locally. It reached its heyday in the 1940–70s when U.S. Silica, headquartered in Berkeley Springs, defined the town’s social and economic life. Several years ago, the company’s headquarters moved out of state. Textile factories, primarily involved in manufacturing socks, opened around 1920 and closed fifty years later, consistent with the nationwide gravitation of textile factories southward (and, subsequently, overseas). Tourism has been the one constant in a town that dubs itself “America’s first spa,” recognizing that George Washington brought his brother there to experience the curative waters. Tourism peaked in the 1980s and 1990s, but is again on the rise. Annually, Berkeley Springs ranks as one of America’s greatest small arts towns.
I’ve tried in this photo series to capture the spirit of small-town life through the lens of the Apple Butter Festival. Certain images are iconic: a strong man solemnly stirring a vat of precious apple butter; a sheriff’s deputy chatting up an apple vendor; Honest Abe befriending a passerby; a baker racking apple butter donuts; winner’s circle for the turtle races; a child enjoying the spa’s waters; men displaying their bearded pride; and mothers making a plan. Small-town vignettes.
Jim Ross jumped into creative pursuits in 2015 after leaving public health research. He's since published nonfiction, poetry, and photography in well over 100 journals and anthologies in North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. Publications include Barren, Columbia Journal, Ilanot Review, Lunch Ticket, Kestrel, The Atlantic, The Manchester Review. Forthcoming: Granta, Roanoke Review, Typehouse. In the past year, he wrote and acted in his first play; and, a nonfiction piece led to a role in a soon-to-be-released, high-profile documentary limited series. Jim and his wife—parents of two health professionals and grandparents of five preschoolers—split their time between the city and the mountains.