Pinning Their Hopes on Pins
How the Cherry Fest’s Commemorative Pin Program raises $70,000 each summer
By Anna Faller | July 1, 2023
Now in its 97th year, the National Cherry Festival has drawn local crowds for decades for its celebration of local fruit, time-honored traditions, and the singular opportunity to eat a cherry pie with no hands. But, beneath all the thrill rides and funnel cake, the festival is also a critical generator of funds for community events and organizations, driven in large part by its Commemorative Pin Program.
The festival’s Commemorative Go for the Gold Pin Program dates back to 1989. The initiative surrounds two souvenir pins—silver and gold—whose designs change almost every year, making them a collectible item for Cherry Fest fans.
“The idea is that you would keep purchasing,” says National Cherry Festival Executive Director Kat Paye, so the pins—which began as simple metal buttons—have ranged from farmstands to pies to (spoiler!) fireworks for the 2023 season. “It all depends on what we can fit on a pin and what makes sense [for that year],” she explains.
Going for Gold
But the pins aren’t just for decorating your backpack, hat, or lapels. Once the festival is underway, pins are required to access the beverage pavilion, home of the almighty Beer Tent.
Here’s the catch: Each pin is doled out in a sealed envelope, so there’s no way to know what color you’re getting. Draw a silver pin, and you have a fun souvenir and a one-way ticket to a frosty drink.
But, if you open a gold pin, the odds of which are 1 in 12.5, according to Paye, you also have the opportunity to enter into the Grand Prize drawing. Provided in conjunction with the Michigan Lottery, this tradition offers participants such big-ticket prizes as flight vouchers, TVs, speed boats, shopping sprees, and this year’s jackpot: a two-year lease on a Toyota Camry.
Within those basic parameters, the program hasn’t changed much since its inception. “There’s a lot of nostalgia for the pin program, so it’s stayed pretty traditional,” Paye notes.
There have been a few minor tweaks, though, most notably pin prices, which have slowly climbed to $5 a pop from just 50 cents in the 1980s.
Selling the Pins
Of course, the program wouldn’t be possible without its legendary pin sellers. As Pin Program Director Don Eastway explains, the program’s early years saw just a handful of sellers and required a $20 entry fee. Since then, their ranks have doubled, though he admits attracting volunteers to the festival since the pandemic began has been difficult. “It’s just harder right now, but [selling pins] is a fun and easy thing to do,” he says.
Like other festival ambassador positions, pin sellers work on a volunteer basis and can choose between stationary selling locations or roving the festival grounds as they please. Volunteering comes with its own incentives, including free lunch in the Ambassador Oasis, a behind-the-scenes spot for off-shift volunteers, as well as a $500-dollar cash prize for the seller with the highest sales (more on that in a bit!).
Though prizes are helpful motivation, veteran seller Margaret Anne Slawson explains that it’s the fun of the job—and connecting with others—that keeps her coming back year after year. “Little crazy things happen, and it’s just fun!” she says.
From families getting the gold more than once to being recognized by locals all over town, Slawson’s seen just about everything in her 26 years selling festival pins. (Heck, she even met her best friend mid-shift!) In that time, she’s claimed the title of second-place seller a whopping 20 times over and, though she isn’t keeping track, suspects she’s sold around 80,000 pins.
Local celebrity Peter Garthe, however, is the uncontested Cherry Festival kingpin. “Peter always comes in first,” Slawson says. “He has a memory like a steel trap, and he knows just about everyone.”
A talented statistician, Garthe has played an integral role in the pin program for more than three decades and doles out a significant percentage of their yearly 20,000-pin stock. This, says Paye, is because Garthe does so much more than simply sell his pins. Instead, there’s an infamous handshake involved—“one, two, three, boogie!”—and you have to open your envelope on the spot to find out if you’ve struck gold.
“It’s amazing. It’s all part of [Peter’s] fun,” Paye says.
To date, Garthe has sold 14,225 gold pins, and his lifetime sales top 250,000. He’s also responsible for raising nearly $780,000 dollars in funds and takes care of festival presales, which usually kick off in early May and include in-person visits to some 200 local businesses.
“I love to sell pins!” he says with a laugh. “I try not to get carried away, but [it’s hard].”
As for his eventual retirement? That’s not in the cards until 2027, or until Garthe meets his one-million pin goal. “He’s an icon of pin sales,” Paye tells us. “This program wouldn’t be what it is without Peter’s dedication.”
Funding the Festival
In fact, the program’s community impact has only increased throughout the last three decades. For starters, there are the Grand Prize winners, many of whom receive real opportunities after buying a simple five-dollar pin.
In this regard, some of Paye’s favorite stories include a couple whose flight vouchers gave them the means to visit faraway family, as well as the unmatched excitement she felt when two longtime ambassadors won a car. “[The grand prize winner] is often a visitor, but what a great reward when it’s one of your volunteers who’s given so much to the program,” she says.
There’s also the initiative’s fundraising aspect, which finances a significant chunk of festival operations. To put the concept into perspective, Paye explains that 90 percent of Cherry Festival events (e.g., fireworks, parades, and the like) are free of charge for the public. Pin sales help offset these costs, which usually ring in at about $80,000, as well as food court and vendor expenses.
From there, any leftover pin revenue goes to the National Cherry Festival Foundation, which is then distributed via grants or helps compensate local groups (e.g., nonprofits like animal shelters and scout troops) that donate their time throughout the festival.
All in all, Paye estimates that the program raises about $70,000 each year, for a total of $750,000 in pin proceeds throughout her 13-year tenure, all of which feeds back into the community.
“That personal connectivity piece comes full circle [in our organization], from corporate memberships to sponsors to volunteers stuffing envelopes and getting them out there,” she explains. “There’s a sense of pride that this is their home community and their festival, and they have the pin to prove it.”
For more information on the Commemorative Pin Program, visit cherryfestival.org. And P.S. The festival is on the hunt to complete its own gold pin collection dating back to 1989, so be sure to check your drawers and storage boxes this year!