How many people does it take to peel 50 bushels of apples for what’s billed as the world’s largest apple pie? Not as many as you might think, according to Lydia Coffey, who oversees that monumental task. Five to 10 pie makers peel, slice, measure and fill a custom-built, stainless steel pan—10 feet in diameter and 10 inches deep—with all the necessary ingredients.
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They finish the peeling and slicing on Thursday night of Casey County’s annual Apple Festival, scheduled September 21-23 this year. The crew loads the apples into a peeler that cores and peels them. Then, the apples go to another part of the peeler for slicing. The sliced apples drop into a pan of lemon juice to prevent them from turning brown. Workers then store all the apples in large plastic bags, ready for the next day’s work.
On Friday, from around 9:30 a.m. until noon or a little after, the pie crew assembles the pie. First, crew members clean and oil the pan. They then use boat paddles to cover the pan with pieces of piecrust, followed by a layer of apples, and then the filling. They repeat this process three times, finishing with another layer of crust and a lattice top. Although it sounds like a lot of work, this pie is only half the original size. In the early Apple Festival years, 100 bushels of apples were used to form five or six layers in an 8-foot pan.
For Coffey, the most nerve-wracking part of the process occurs when the pie is ready for the oven. Although she has the utmost confidence in the forklift driver, she holds her breath when he lifts the pie from its platform, backs it from under the work tent, and moves toward the oven’s open double doors. After the pie slides into the oven, the oven doors close, the baking begins, and Coffey resumes breathing. Someone remains with the pie to protect and check it throughout the night.
As the pie comes out of the oven at noon on Saturday after baking 12 hours, Coffey’s nerves begin dancing again. However, once the pie is in place, she and the pie crew can celebrate in earnest. Another year. Another pie. A piece of cake (or, in this case, pie).
The workers use large scoops to fill serving pans. After they dip warm apple pie from the outer edges, they use their boat paddles to push the contents of the pie’s center to the sides of the pan. Thousands of visitors enjoy a generous portion of apple pie à la mode at no charge. Any leftovers go to the local jail for the following week’s dessert.
Liberty’s IGA bakes a giant chocolate chip cookie on Wednesday night, and Pizza Hut provides a giant pizza Thursday night, both also served free to the public. With these giant treats, no one should leave the Apple Festival hungry. In addition to cookie, pizza and pie, vendors offer a variety of tasty treats, including the usual burgers and funnel cakes, plus locally made fried apple pies. Better get a fried pie first. They sell quickly.
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Lois Sandusky and her daughter, Jo Ann Pratt, make many of those fried pies. They spend most of the Apple Festival at home making the pies and filling jars with pie filling. Lois’ recipe came from her mother and is more than 100 years old. “It makes a good ice cream topping as well as pie filling,” she said.
Jo Ann’s husband, Darin, oversees their booth, where he sells the pies, jars of filling and bagged apples from the only remaining commercial apple orchard in Casey County. Lois said she and her late husband, Ottis, grew apples for at least 40 years. Jo Ann and Darin began helping about four years before Ottis’ death in 2015.
The vision for an apple festival began in the early 1970s with Marion Murphy. As an agriculture teacher at the Casey County Vocational School, his objective was to increase local farmers’ income. He said the county had around 225,000 apple trees with no means of selling the apples and no publicity. Commercial growers were selling apples in paper bags from their yards, so he said he decided to “make a little noise to tell people they were there.”
Murphy mentioned his idea to his friend, Greg Lawhorn, a welding teacher, and then to local fruit growers. Apple grower George Wolford’s excitement matched that of Murphy and Lawhorn. Although “no one knew what they were doing,” Lawhorn said, they and other committee members began putting together the first festival. “The longer we talked, the more it became reality,” he added. No one imagined it would last. They hoped for maybe three or four good years to let people know they could find apples in Casey County. Lawhorn said those early years “just about worked us all to death.”
Lawhorn said he and his welding shop students made a big metal box for the oven and a pan that “leaked like crazy.” Wolford, a professional electrician, handled the wiring for the oven. Lawhorn said they had “no plans or blueprints—all was trial and error.” An engineer with GE in Louisville tested their equipment, and, although crude, it worked. Extension agent Shirley Shepperson provided a simple apple pie recipe they multiplied for 100 bushels of apples. Following a test run at the high school, they introduced the public to the world’s largest apple pie in 1974.
Now using a third-generation oven and pan, the festival and the pie continue to improve. Murphy said he and Wolford may have “led the parade” in putting the festival together, but “you can’t cook an elephant unless you have a big pot.” For that, he thanks Lawhorn.
Wayne Hughes kept the oven in his apple barn the first two seasons, until the group secured other storage. Hughes sold his apple orchard in 1999, following a leukemia diagnosis two years earlier. Although his health cut short his active involvement in the festival, it did not diminish his support. He still enjoys watching the assembly of the pie and telling newcomers a bit of its history.
Wolford, who died in 2012 at 90, oversaw the pie preparation. After a few years, he asked Lydia Coffey to take the reins. Although Coffey and her husband, Jim, had helped him since the festival’s early years, Coffey admits her lattice topping fails to measure up to Wolford’s precise spacing.
Bea Edwards, 95, continues as the unofficial crust edge crimper. She now lives in Anderson, Indiana, but this Casey County native returns every year. She had to forgo her crimping a couple of years following a fall that injured her back. However, she returned full force in 2015. She circles and crimps the huge pie at a speed and precision few people half her age could equal. She said when Wolford saw her initial work, he wanted her to continue the crimping because she “did it best.”
For many people with Casey County roots, the Apple Festival serves as an annual homecoming, a time to see former classmates and friends. Although activities begin the Saturday before, during the last weekend in September, the town of Liberty grows to five times its normal size, with 50,000-60,000 visitors for the event.
People also come from around the world to get a look at and taste of the giant pie and enjoy the atmosphere of small town fun. Pageants, music, a carnival, a parade, a car show, a 5K run, fireworks and more than 200 vendors offer a full plate of entertainment as well as pie. The festival’s contests include a spelling bee, frog jumping, pedal tractor pull, nail driving and apple peeling. Arts, crafts and flea-market items abound.
“Our goal is to promote Casey County and all the qualities and fine things we produce here in our county,” festival chairperson Deva Hair said. “Casey County has hard workers, who put everything together for the people who attend to enjoy.”
In addition to the committee and other volunteers, the local jail allows inmates with good behavior to help with set-up and clean-up. This gives them an opportunity to benefit from the community atmosphere and frees the volunteers for other responsibilities.
Hair said the Apple Festival “has put Casey County on the map,” especially since its designation as the best festival in Kentucky several times in recent years by different entities. However, as with any good festival, the Casey County team strives for ongoing improvements. Hair mentioned bigger, better and more organized events. Coffey would like to see an increase in crafts and activities to highlight local culture.
If you attend Casey County’s Apple Festival, take your time, stroll the streets, and soak in the sights, smells and tastes of a community that knows how to enjoy food, fun, friends and family.