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Harvest Homecoming returns to New Albany this week

Families line New Albany's streets for the annual Harvest Homecoming parade.

For a week in October, New Albany transforms entirely for Harvest Homecoming.

Cars on downtown’s busy streets are replaced by thousands of people, who shuffle from booth to booth enjoying platefuls of calorie-dense comfort food and carnival games. Storefronts are decorated with pumpkins and local children’s paintings.

“Harvest Homecoming is just the absolute best pieces of New Albany, all the best businesses, all the best partners,” said Courtney Lewis, vice president of the festival’s board. “We could not do it without this community.”

Last year, Harvest Homecoming canceled what would’ve been its 52nd celebration due to the coronavirus pandemic, the first cancellation in its history. The festival returned to the city this week.

Lewis said Harvest is something Hoosiers of all ages look forward to every year. Children are excited for the kickoff parade and carnival rides. Adults get a chance to catch up with old friends.

“It is an opportunity where a lot of people come back to town, so it really is a homecoming in that way for so many people,” Lewis said. “You get to see people you haven't seen in so long.”

New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan said the festival’s absence last year didn’t just hurt community spirit. It’s a big money maker for the city, too.

New Albany awarded the Harvest Homecoming board $50,000 from federal COVID-19 relief funds to ensure it stayed on solid financial footing after it canceled last year's event.

Gahan said he’s thrilled to have the festival back this year.

“I feel a lot more appreciation for the Harvest Homecoming than we have, even though we have a great turnout every single year,” he said. “But people took a year off, and I think they realize how special the Harvest Homecoming is.”

The festival officially kicked off last Saturday with a parade down Vincennes and Spring streets. The theme was the Roaring ‘20s, with multiple floats dedicated to Prohibition-era imagery. The parade also featured World War II veterans, local student athletes and first responders.

Lafayette Township Fire public information officer Ryan Houchen said working during the pandemic has been difficult. That’s why he appreciates the opportunity to interact with the community even more this year.

“It puts a lot of stress on people when you're not connected,” Houchen said. “Yes, you can talk to them by phone or social media or whatever, but being in person with someone that you haven't seen in two years is healthy, and it's good for people.”

Despite the parade’s popularity, Harvest Homecoming’s biggest draw are its booth days, when vendors line the streets of downtown New Albany.

Hundreds of thousands of people pack into the city to try chicken and dumplings, porkchop sandwiches and oysters. Antonio Grubbs, an assistant football coach at New Albany High School, said he’s ready to feast. 

“I cannot wait to get my hands on some of that vendor food,” he said. “I'm a big foodie, so I'm probably going to get some of the calories that I don't need.”

Some city residents see the pandemic reboot as an opportunity to rethink Harvest.

Andrew Nicholson works to promote downtown merchants. He thinks the festival could do more to support them. While the festival is a boon for some, others take a financial hit.

“We shut down all the city streets, and then we block the businesses with the booths,” he said. “I think it'd be fun to restructure that to put the booth on the inside of the road facing the other way to leave the businesses open.”

Carnival rides are already operating along the Ohio River, and Harvest Homecoming booths will be set up Thursday through Sunday.

John, News Editor for LPM, is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email John at jboyle@lpm.org.