When Addison Gaff looked up and saw two horses driving a carriage past her downtown Hillsdale shop, she knew the local fall festival was a bigger deal than she’d imagined.
“I had no idea it was this big of an event,” Gaff said of Hillsdale’s “Awesome Autumn” fall fest, held annually for the past seven or eight years by the Hillsdale Business Association, according to the event’s committee co-chair and HBA president, Cindy Bieszk.
Modern Revival, the shabby chic furniture store where Gaff works, joined about 30 downtown shops in opening their doors from 5 – 8 p.m. on Tuesday, offering free food and activities for streams of patrons. Dressed in costumes, a few hundred children — and their parents — enjoyed the carriage ride, free candy and pumpkins, greeting princesses outside of Smith’s Flower Shop, and a big red moonbounce set up by Salvation Army outside the courthouse.
“The ultimate goal of Awesome Autumn is to keep our downtown vibrant and growing,” Bieszk said. “We want everyone in all the shops.”
The event included a costume contest for kids and prize drawings at shops that sported paper pumpkins on their doors. Nothing differed significantly from previous years, Bieszk said.
Storekeepers measured their traffic by goods consumed: Customers grabbed 200 bags of pumpkin cotton candy by 6:30 at Small Town Sweet Boutique and picked up 250 pumpkins by 6:45 at Smith’s flower shop.
At Jilly Beans coffee shop, kids painted pumpkins that they’d picked up for free down the street at Smith’s.
“He’s going to a dance,” said seven-year-old Tate Ortiz, carefully adorning his pumpkin with felt stickers shaped like a suit and bowtie.
Small Town Sweet Boutique opened just three weeks ago, and owner Danielle Brock said she hadn’t known what to expect. More people came than she had cotton candy for, and they weren’t just children: Two older men in black leather jackets muttered something about being like Ronald Reagan as they took free samples of jelly beans.
Checker Records coffee shop handed out hot chocolate. Nutrition Solutions offered protein shakes and cookies. All Aboard Travel cooked up chicken and pork on kabobs. Besides pumpkins, Smith’s Flower Shop served barbecue sandwiches from the House of Pizza and BBQ.
Patrons included college students, part of Bieszk’s goal.
“It’s sometimes hard to get students down the hill,” she said. “We do have a good downtown, and we want to remember what we have.”
“It’s a good community-building event with the college,” said Hillsdale College senior Jenna Biggs, who came with two friends. “It’s the only thing that would get us down here on a weekday evening in the middle of midterms.”
Several stores propped up scarecrows for a competition. At the Blossom Shop, owner Kathy Newell showed off their special straw man: a replica of the store’s founder, Karl Katzenmeyer, complete with a black-and-white photo of his face with a pipe in his mouth.
“The best part of Awesome Autumn is having a beautiful night,” Newell said, “and people being able to come and enjoy the downtown like it used to be.”
Though the costume contest and free pumpkins are for kids, no one’s too old to come. Sarah Broughman, a white-haired lady who works at the Hillsdale College dining hall, laughed as she watched her middle-aged daughter, Melissa Broughman, play with a battery-operated witch’s broom not far from the courthouse.
Melissa said she couldn’t resist buying the toy, and that the two enjoyed the treats, the nice weather, and the fall atmosphere.
The two said they looked forward to visiting the candy store — “a dangerous place to go” because of her sweet tooth, Sarah said — and going on a carriage ride.
“We’re still kids at heart,” Sarah said.