“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”Helen Keller

It’s been said that volunteerism is one of the most selfless acts that people can get involved in. 

Indeed, nonprofit organizations like the Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center heavily rely on community volunteerism to carry out their mission of making a difference.

Attending my first Cranberry Fest in 1,628-resident Eagle River last weekend, jam-packed with 300-plus volunteers, 250-plus exhibiting vendors and a mind-blowing 45,000-plus festival-goers, I did a lot of reflection on the community service underpinning such an undertaking as I ambled around downtown Eagle River and the Vilas County Fairgrounds, bouncing off the shoulder-to-shoulder Saturday afternoon crowd like a human pinball as I noshed on my cranberry pulled pork sandwich and bag of Bavarian roasted nuts, the latter glazed in an intoxicatingly addictive blend of cinnamon, sugar and vanilla. 

I chuckle at the guy at the Wall Street antique show enthusing to his companion over a ginoromous ceramic elephant suitable for an end table.

“What a conversation piece! Not everyone’s got one, ya know!”

Over the course of the festival’s Saturday-Sunday run, it was like the population of Sheboygan or Fond du Lac just happened to drop by for a visit, a cranberry brat and a frothy souvenir plastic mug of beer, later toting home antique treasures, sacks of farmer’s market edibles, arts-and-crafts tchotchke, and take-home bags of premium whole cranberries fresh from the marsh.

While the COVID-19 grinch stole the 2020 festival, Cranberry Fest returned this year and, it seemed, absence made the heart grow fonder for Cranberry Fest devotees.

“We believe this was one of the largest ever,” said Eagle River Area Chamber executive director Kim Emerson of the 2021 Cranberry Fest, the chamber’s 41st annual. “The Saturday crowd was just amazing. Volunteers and this community were ready to have Cranberry Fest back. The vendors were very excited to be back. And I guarantee that the tourists, the visitors to our community, were very happy to be able to attend Cranberry Fest, which is definitely an annual pilgrimage for many of them each year. To have Cranberry Fest back was very important and exciting for all of them.” 

The festival draws attendees from across Wisconsin and “definitely from throughout the Midwest” according to Emerson, who added that festival crafters are drawn “from throughout the United States.”

Playing host to a crowd of that size is where community volunteerism comes in, with just Chamber volunteers alone logging more than 2,000-plus combined hours in support of this year’s Cranberry Fest — people like Eagle River eighth-grader Ruth Squiller and Oak Creek resident Bob Daneck working side-by-side filling bags of fresh whole cranberries, and Northland Pines High School English teacher and girls basketball head coach Josh Olivotti grilling sizzling brats in a haze of charcoal smoke.

Additionally,  Emerson said a number of organizations, including local sports teams and community service organizations, logged additional hours in support of Cranberry Fest. And, she added, local businesses assist the chamber both before and after the festival.

“It is very much a community event,” said Emerson. “We couldn’t do it without the Eagle River community. We could not put Cranberry Fest on if we did not have the support of the entire community, and we are very thankful that we do have a great community that wants to work together. A hats off and a great big thank you from the Eagle River Chamber of Commerce and its board of directors to all the volunteers who took the time to give some hours to help this event take place. Their support is very important and very much appreciated.”

Volunteers supporting community-wide events like Cranberry Fest help the Chamber in its efforts to promote area tourism and boost the local North Woods economy.

“Cranberry Fest is a great shoulder season event,”  said Emerson. “That’s part of what we want to do for our area — make sure that we have that economic growth. An event this large helps everybody out — lodging facilites, restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, retail shops. It’s definitely helping all their businesses because we have this event.”

Emerson said the chamber’s proceeds from?Cranberry Fest are used to promote the Eagle River area, keep the chamber’s Visitor?Center “open and available,” and enable the chamber to “send a lot of donations out into the community for all their support.”

Next year’s Cranberry Fest is scheduled for Oct. 1-2, 2022. 

When he’s not busy entering the 2022 Cranberry Fest into the calendar program on his smartphone, News-Review assistant editor Eric Johnson can be reached at ericj@vcnewsreview.com.