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Blueberry week is here

 42nd Blueberry/Art Festival starts Friday, includes many new vendors

by Tom Coombe

The countdown is on to Ely’s busiest three days of the summer.

Now in its 42nd year, the Blueberry/Art Festival begins Friday at Whiteside Park, runs through the weekend, and promises to bring thousands of people to the community.

If past precedent is any indication, by noon Friday the park will be overflowing with vendors, visitors and shoppers for what has become Ely’s signature event of the summer.

The 2022 event was busy at levels seen prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and marked a return to normal after the 2020 event was cancelled and  the 2021 festival stopped midstream because of a damaging windstorm.

This year’s festival figures to be even busier with the park at capacity with 250 vendors, much higher than

the roughly 200 who were  here last year.

It’s the largest festival since 2019, when there were 270 vendors, but the park has been configured so 250 is the current maximum.

The festival is being planned and organized by the Ely Chamber of Commerce, which has sponsored the Blueberry/Art since its inception.

Always held on the last weekend of July, the Blueberry/Art Festival has grown from humble roots and in its four-decade history has become a major happening.

The 2023 festival should appeal to a broad audience, according to the Chamber’s event coordinator - Kristen Switajewski.

“It’s going to be a wonderful event,” said Switajewski.  “There are a lot of new and returning vendors. No matter what you’re interested in you should be able to find something that will tickle your fancy with the wide variety of vendors that we have.”

The festival lineup includes 45 first-time Blueberry/Art vendors.

A sampling includes “some gorgeous new sculptors working with different stones and rocks, with Ely’s Rock Country Masonry one of those,” Switajewski said.

She added “there are some new wood sculptors that will do wood carvings of maps, lake maps, and I’m really excited about three sisters that have unique talents that are coming up. One does jewelry, one is an author and one does paintings.  There’s a little bit of everything there.”

The festival will have plenty of jewelry, pottery, paintings, photographs and wood products in the lineup, with many longtime vendors returning to town.

While some vendors come from several states away to sell their products, Ely-based artists and vendors are also part of the show.

New syrup and honey vendors are part of a bolstered food lineup, and the festival food court is a popular staple.

New food vendors this year include Beyond Nuts, Kernel’s Best Kettle Corn and MN Fresh Fuel, which offers nitro coffee, cold press and fresh roasted coffee beans.

Hot sauce, mustard and barbecue sauce are some of the offerings of the Lake Superior Spice Company while QFI International Seafood comes to Ely all the way from Florida.

While a pancake breakfast is no longer part of the festival lineup, those looking to start their day with a festival-themed breakfast are pointed in the direction of the Ely Senior Center (see related story), which is putting on a breakfast bake on Sunday, July 30.

“There’s breakfast down at the Senior Center for those people who are missing that one aspect of the festival,” said Switajewski.

The festival has expanded hours, with a 9 a.m. start both Friday and Saturday, and it opens with Friday’s Blueberry Bash as representatives of the Ely Folk School will be on hand to mash paper maches of blueberries.

In addition to the festivities at the park, some entrepreneurs set up shop nearby to cash in and the Chamber is promoting downtown businesses to festival-goers through its Operation Blueberry.

The festival comes on the heels of a hectic summer and organizers expect nothing  less this weekend.

“This year we have our largest amount of vendors we’ve had pre-Covid so this is going to be a really big thing,” said Switajewki.

A full-capacity Blueberry/Art Festival would be the first in four years.

The 2020 festival, along with most other area events, were cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Plans for a more typical 2021 event went awry because of the weather. During the evening of the festival’s first day, a severe thunderstorm brought rain, hail and damaging winds that wreaked havoc across the area and inside the park, where trees fell and many vendors had tents damaged.

The rest of the festival was subsequently cancelled.

Vendors, visitors and organizers alike were thankful for a 2022 event that seemed to go off without a significant hitch.

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