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Omaha Magazine

A is for Applejack

Aug 22, 2023 02:51PM ● By Kim Carpenter

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For several generations, scores of people have flocked to Nebraska City in mid-September to savor autumn apples. The annual AppleJack Festival, now entering its 55th year, has become a rite of passage into the year’s cooler months; a beloved tradition that holds a special place of honor in family photo albums across the region.

Jack Brawner is the man often credited with coming up with the idea to establish AppleJack. Born in Fairbury, Nebraska, in 1929, Brawner moved with his family in 1931 to Nebraska City, where they opened Brawner Furniture.

While serving as chairman of retail trade for the town’s Chamber of Commerce in the late 1960s, Brawner pitched hosting an autumn festival. Before then, Nebraska City had tried holding an annual spring apple blossom celebration to capitalize on its apple orchards, but peak bloom times proved unpredictable. Instead, Brawner suggested putting on an event centered around the apple harvest. The bulk of apples were ready by the middle of September, he reasoned, and the weather typically tended to be reliably temperate and dry.

The business community loved the idea, and in 1968, Nebraska City held its first AppleJack Festival. While the name can refer to the apple liquor—“jacking” involves freezing hard cider and removing the ice from the liquid to boost alcohol content—the apocryphal consensus is that AppleJack had Brawner to thank for the event’s namesake.

“We can’t verify it officially,” said Tammy Partsch, author and marketing director for Nebraska City Tourism & Commerce. “The story behind it is tricky. Although his son says the festival was named after his father, Jack would never confirm it. He didn’t like the spotlight.”

Brawner did, however, love shining the spotlight on Nebraska City. Over the last half century, the festival has grown to attract some 60,000-80,000 visitors annually.

Although Brawner, who died in 2021 at age 91, eschewed credit for AppleJack, he still enjoyed participating. In 2014, he proudly rode the “All Jack” parade float, which exclusively featured people with the name “Jack.”

That was a banner year, remembered Amy Allgood, Nebraska City Tourism & Commerce’s executive director. 

“We had perfect, beautiful, crisp weather, and there was no football game. We had over 100,000 visitors. It was our biggest AppleJack ever!” she exclaimed.

The event includes multiple, competing marching bands, parade floats, and Navy sailors from the nuclear submarine the USS Nebraska.

“All of our businesses have floats; seeing them all is so cool,” Allgood said. “Local businesses also make serious investments in candy. Kids always bring sacks.”

AppleJack also includes vendor booths, a classic car show, food trucks, the “All Things Apple” recipe contest, as well as apple picking at Nebraska City’s main three orchards: Arbor Day Farm, Union Orchard, and Kimmel Orchard & Vineyard. 

Connie Van Nostrand, marketing manager for Arbor Day Farm and Lied Lodge, which takes part in the festival every year, said orchard visits are a perennial favorite with visitors. 

“I’ve seen a lot of AppleJacks,” she said. “One of our primary activities is apple picking. It’s a family tradition. People did it as children, and now they do it with their kids or grandkids. It’s really special to them.”

Partsch said many visitors are eager to share their AppleJack memories: “We hear all the time, ‘Oh, my gosh! I was in the marching band!’ People just love it. They know they’re getting their apple pie and apple cider.”

After a moment, the marketing director confessed that she can’t remember a time without the festival. 

“When I was a kid, I thought the cereal was named after the festival,” she laughed. “I grew up across the street from the Arbor Day Farm. I stole so many apples as a child and have attended so many festivals. There have been only a handful of years when I missed the parade.”

Partsch further shared that in 1993, during her senior year of high school, she was crowned the festival’s Miss AppleJack. Although the pageant is no longer held, she fondly reminisces about the achievement. 

“I still have my $250 savings bond,” she chuckled.

Allgood and Partsch are so intertwined with AppleJack’s history, the duo relaunched the festival’s beloved water barrel fight in 2017. The contest involves opposing teams using fire hoses to move wire-suspended metal barrels 20 feet above the street to a goal point.

“This was an event you did in the fifth grade,” Allgood recounted. “Your entire class came and cheered you on. It didn’t matter who you were; you were a cool kid if you got picked to do it. We have so many people our age putting teams together and registering to do this. Now, we’re the cool kids again! There’s tremendous nostalgia for it.”

Allgood loves how the festival continues to be Nebraska City’s autumn highlight. “The reason that AppleJack is such a success is that the whole community comes together. Everybody does their part. It’s a humongous endeavor,” she said. “I always get emotional about it.”

As for Partsch, there’s one thing she specifically looks forward to every AppleJack: caramel apples. 

“I’ve eaten so many of them—holy smoke, I just love them!” she enthused. “Having them in the fall at the festival is a highlight for our family.”

“People love the caramel apples,” agreed Van Nostrand. “We had a meeting recently, and AppleJack and caramel apples came up. A new person asked, ‘Just how many caramel apples are we talking, exactly?’ Last year, we did around 3,600.”

Von Nostrand paused. “They really are wonderful.” 

For details about this year’s AppleJack Festival, visit

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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