My footsteps along the gravel pathways of Tall Oaks stepped in time to the sound of Celtic Creek, a spirited guitar, flute and vocalist ensemble set up in a rustic pavilion.
Surrounded by thousands of acres in the middle of the Allegheny National Forest, Tall Oaks was in its 17th annual Autumn Fest. A first-time visitor, I reveled in the bustling outdoor setting, a tranquil wooded enclave of picturesque shops, talented crafters and accomplished food vendors.
Tom Beletic, mastermind of the event, said the first year he held the outdoor mix of shopping, food and entertainment, he only had a single vendor: Betty Labesky from Sheffield, selling her baked goods alongside the merchandise in his Tall Oaks store.
“Now we get vendors from as far away as Philadelphia, some of whom stay for the entire nine-weekend run that extends from the beginning of September through the end of October,” he said. “Over the years, we’ve grown quite a bit and now average 60,000 patrons over the course of the entire festival.”
In October 1981, Beletic opened one small shop in an area surrounded by — what else — tall oak trees. The site has grown into a cluster of shops featuring gifts, decorator items, candles, Christmas ornaments, candy, lamps, plaques, prints, garden accessories, collectibles, antiques and more.
Augmenting the merchandise in the permanent buildings are vendors such as John Keyes of St. Marys, who stood behind a wagon laden with his homemade Goblin Chocolate treats and handed out samples of chocolate covered cranberries, cherries and blueberries.
Nearby, Tony Ceriola of Warren and his wife, Sandy, were making tasty miniature doughnuts and passing out samples, along with a dollop of pumpkin dip to kick up the taste a notch or two.
“They’re real light and melt in your mouth,” he said.
Elsewhere, under a spacious tent, Jeff Karwoski of Westfield, N.Y., was overseeing his collection of wooden reindeer made of recycled logs and branches salvaged from the Taylor Tree Service, where he holds his day job.
With the aroma of gyros, cheesesteaks, Italian sausage and cinnamon-roasted almonds, pecans and cashews wafting through the air, I made my way to the Brick Village Gourmet booth. There I eyed the company’s lineup of interesting foods, such as balsamic and sweet onion relish and Concord grapeseed Vinaigrette salad dressing.
A few steps away, Sherrie McIntosh of Waterford was talking to passers-by about her all-natural soaps and lotions from a booth that also displayed seven varieties of Sprecher’s gourmet sodas bottled by a small German brewery in Wisconsin.
Like all the other vendors, the Potpourri Patch of Marble, Pa., was juried by a three-man committee. Louise Linehan, the aunt of owner Lisa Guerrero, was bagging seven different fragrances of potpourri with names like “Holiday Memories” and “Warm Gingerbread,” held in metal washtubs.
“All our product is made from botanicals like berries and seed pods imported from around the world,” she explained.
Exiting Tall Oaks, I stopped to admire the pieces on display at the Artworks by Mother Earth stall. All the products are handcrafted by artists in the Lake Chautauqua, N.Y., area using natural materials such as beautifully grained maple burl, basswood, cherry and driftwood and carved deer, moose and elk antlers.
“Our Autumn Fest is a celebration of the changing of the seasons,” Beletic said. “We start early before the leaves begin to change and stay until they’ve fallen.”
Dave Zuchowski writes for The NewCastle (Pa.) News.
IF YOU GO
Tall Oaks Autumn Fest
•Tall Oaks is located on Route 666 between Sheffield and Marienville, Pa. This year’s Autumn Festopens and continues each weekend through Oct. 26 and 27. For more information, call (814) 968-5558 or visit www.talloaksstores.com.
•The Tall Oaks Web site claims the ride through the Allegheny National Forest to the site is an experience in itself. Deer are common. Folks have even spotted the occasional bear and a bald eagle or two. Furthermore, the stretch of highway from Barnes to Hickory that takes you right past Tall Oaks has been called the “Most Beautiful Autumn Drive in Pennsylvania.”
•For more information on other attractions in the area, call 800- 473-9370.
•For a place to stay, the Kane Manor at 230 Clay St. in Kane offers 10 guest rooms in a turn-of-the-century, national historic landmark famous for its relaxed atmosphere and homey touches. A delicious wake-up breakfast served in the cozy dining room is included in the cost of the room. Call 888-550-6522 or visit www.kanemanor.com.
•For a place to dine, Pepe’s Pizzeria and Bistro at 127 Fraley St. in Kane specializes in pizza, stromboli, hot and cold subs, salads, pasta and wraps and stocks over 100 varieties of beer. Call 814-837-8712.
•You might also want to stop in at the Flickerwood Wine Cellars, 309 Flickerwood Road in Kane, for a sample of its award-winning wines. The winery also stages special events such as comedy evenings and cabaret shows with dinner. Call 814-837-7566 or visit www.flickerwood.com.