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Best Fall Festivals for Families

Courtesy of Sonoma County Harvest Festival

Photo: Courtesy of Sonoma County Harvest Festival

See our slideshow of the Best Fall Festivals for Families.

With the U.S. presidential election fast approaching, the campaigning done in October is some of the most crucial in the whole race. Politicians are constantly on the lookout for new niche markets and untapped voting pools. Lucky for them, fall festivals provide an unfiltered view into classic Americana and hometown values. The celebration of the harvest is Main Street America—full of food, fun, and voters of all ages.

Red, blue, or swing state, from New York to Texas, communities everywhere enjoy the harvest season with fall-focused festivities and family-friendly activities. Whether the yield is pumpkins or pinot, apples or oysters, small-town America sets this time apart to honor the farm workers who fill our holiday season’s kitchens and tables.

What’s in it for you?Abundant food is what harvest festivals are all about. Fairs across the country are sharing the bounty—and it’s not always just the typical squash and apples. You’ll still find classic variations on a single ingredient—the Peanut Festival in Floresville, Texas is just one example. But fall harvest fans are also developing more mature and varied palates, and asking vendors to mature as well. At the Oysterfest in Wellfleet, Mass., refined palates can enjoy oysters, wine tastings, and chocolate-and-port pairings. With a focus on the local, the fair is a true farm-to-table celebration.

Clearly, harvest culture reaches a wide audience, with food, music, and activities to suit all ages and tastes. The Circleville Pumpkin Show alone boasts nearly continuous music on more than half-a-dozen stages during the festival. Creole funk, rock, Irish, country, and jazz performances mean that the event has something for everyone (talk about democratic entertainment). With so many choices, even the testiest of teenagers will find something to nod along to.

In fact, many megastars got their start playing these kinds of community stages. Destiny’s Child and Christina Aguilera performed at the State Fair of Texas in 2000 as they climbed the charts of top 40 stations across the nation. And some stars still perform at fairs: Jessica Simpson got back to her country roots by singing at several festivals this past summer. So keep an eye out for the stars of tomorrow.

If the family has a competitive spirit, harvest festivals offer a plethora of opportunities to show off. In Porter, N.Y., kids find an irrational joy in jettisoning cabbages across a field. Parents go giddy for stomping grapes in Sonoma. The 4-H and FFA traditions have embedded hog calling and sheep herding competitions in the festival schedule—with dirty and often comical results. But perhaps the best laughs are found at the talent shows, where raw star-power and a little Schadenfreude abound.

To the same end, pageants have become an integral part of the harvest festival experience. From baby contests to festival queens, everyone loves a hometown celebrity. The winners receive scholarship money in addition to a picture in the local paper. Though Miss (and Little Miss) Pumpkin Show and the Black Walnut Festival Queen hold classic pageant titles, no festival is better at putting on a coronation than the Floresville Peanut Festival. Their king and queen (Reboog and Tunaep—“goober” and “peanut” spelled backwards) wear extraordinary robes created by friends and family—an outward token of inward pride.

As the weather cools and the light changes to autumn gold, take your family out to discover the rural beauty of a crisp just-picked apple in Pennsylvania, or a sweet black walnut cake in West Virginia. We’ve picked the warmest communities to visit on chilly October days.

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