The reign of Queen Bonnie

By Mark Fedder
Manistee County Historical Society

In honor of the Manistee County Historical Museum celebrating 50 years in the Lyman Building, the Manistee County Historical Museum is commemorating the year 1961 with a series of articles about the people, places, and events that shaped Manistee County in 1961. The following article is Part 6 of the series, “Celebrating ‘61.”

As I glanced out the front windows of the museum waiting to interview Bonnie Harnish, I wondered how I would recognize her as I had never met her face to face before. Watching as a few people parked their cars and walked off down the street, I could tell that none of them were my soon-to-be guest.

A few minutes later I noticed a woman who had pulled up across from the museum and was starting to take what looked like a baked cherry pie out of her car. It was then that I knew for certain that this was Bonnie Harnish who in 1961 not only secured the title of State Cherry Pie Baking Champion, but was also named queen of the Manistee National Forest Festival.

Michigan’s four agricultural representatives and queens were Michigan Week guests on Ben Alexander’s "About Faces" game show on ABC-TV. Surrounding Alexander, from the left, are Cherry Pie Queen Bonnie Brunais from Bear Lake, Bean Queen Mary Ann Hobart of Gagetown, Apple Queen Sally Green of Fennville, and Blossom Queen Beth Dall of Berrien Springs. (Courtesy photo/Bonnie Harnish)

It’s difficult and a little intimidating to call someone out of the blue and ask them questions about events that happened in their life 50 years ago. Some people simply can’t remember what you’re asking them and some maybe don’t want to remember, but after a few moments reminiscing with Bonnie, you know for certain that she recalls just about everything that happened during 1961.

When asked about her exploits during that year, Bonnie collects her thoughts for a moment and says with a giggle, “I never thought that baking a cherry pie would really take me anywhere. But it did, and what a whirlwind experience it was.”

At the age of 17, Bear Lake High School senior Bonnie Brunais (Harnish) made the decision to enter her school’s cherry pie baking contest at the urging of her mother. The contest was part of a nation-wide competition to find the best cherry pie in the United States. Bonnie’s journey began in December 1960 when out of 12 other entrants, she won the title of best cherry pie in Bear Lake.

After winning the school’s contest, Bonnie was then able to enter the Manistee County Cherry Pie Baking Contest which took place in Manistee at Wahr Hardware on Division Street.

In order to win any contest, one of things that is required of us is to practice as much as we can, and it was no different for Bonnie when she became a finalist in the countywide pie baking contest.

“I was allowed to take time every day to practice baking a cherry pie and the Bear Lake School staff would enjoy eating them,” recalls Bonnie with a laugh. ‘Practice makes perfect,’ I often said, although my father was getting really sick of pie.”

Out of nine other contestants, Bonnie took first place in the countywide contest and the next stop was the State Cherry Pie Baking Contest in Grand Rapids where there would be 61 contestants.

Bonnie with Bob Barker then host of the game show, “Truth or Consequences. (Courtesy photo/Bonnie Harnish)”

“The hardest thing was that I had to bake two pies and decide which one to enter in the State Contest,” remembers Bonnie. “That was really nerve-wracking.”

At the statewide competition, contestants were not only judged on their ability to bake a pie, but were also judged on poise, mannerisms, beauty and the ability to meet and speak to the public.

Once again, Bonnie won and was crowned Queen of the Michigan State Cherry Pie Baking Contest. After her win in Grand Rapids, she then made the trip to Chicago to enter the National Cherry Pie Baking Contest, the winner of which would win a trip to Washington, D.C. to present the president with a pie. While Bonnie didn’t win the trip to the nation’s capital, she took the top prize for the Eastern Division.

One of the things that Bonnie remembers the most is the encouragement and support of her hometown, whose population championed her every move.

“My hometown of Bear Lake was very supportive. The ladies of the Trigenta Club bought me a set of Samsonite luggage as well as jewelry for my trip. Glen of Michigan (the garment factory) invited me to pick out some clothes to wear on my trip. The whole community was just very supportive,” recollects Bonnie.

While the latter part of a high school senior’s life is usually filled with thoughts of graduating and moving on, Bonnie had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity waiting for her once she returned home from Chicago.

“When I got home I was informed that the National Cherry Festival Queen in Traverse City could not fulfill her duties and I was asked to make a trip to different parts of the U.S.A. with three other queens (Apple, Bean, Blossom) where I would be making guest appearances on various radio and television programs,” Bonnie remembers with a hint of excitement in her eyes.

But before Bonnie could go on her city-hopping tour across the nation, she had to approve it with the Bear Lake School administration as she would have to miss her finals.

“I wasn’t sure I should go on the trip because I would miss my high school final exams and graduation. I went to my school advisor, Mr. Louie Noult, and he told me to go as it was a great opportunity. I also learned that the Bear Lake School Board held a special meeting and voted for me to forgo my final exams. My parents held a graduation party and Bear Lake Superintendent Maurice Goodreau presented me with my diploma.”

It’s not every day that many of us get the chance to go on an all-expense-paid trip across the country or get the opportunity to appear on television and meet Hollywood stars, but for a week in Bonnie Brunais’ life, it was normal.

“The most fun of the whole experience was my trip,” remembers Bonnie. “I posed for pictures, talked on the radio, and appeared on various television game shows like ‘Truth or Consequences,’ ‘It Could Be You,’ ‘About Faces,’ and ‘Queen for A Day.’ I also put in an appearance at a Major League Baseball game as well as the Grand Old Opry. I additionally got to go on the set of ‘Gunsmoke’ and meet James Arness. He was really tall!”

With a laugh Bonnie recalls, “I got to do all this while promoting cherries … who knew?”

After her week-long journey Bonnie returned home to Bear Lake to have another surprise sprung on her.

“When I came home from my trip I was asked to run for the Manistee National Forest Festival Queen. I was not sure how things would turn out but I was very excited to represent Bear Lake in the contest so I decided to just be myself and do my best.”

One of the things that stands out in Bonnie’s memory is an embarrassing, if not funny, happenstance that occurred on stage during the contest.

“My mother bought me a dress for the contest. It was white with very large buttons on the side. There were 10 contestants and we all came out on the Ramsdell Theatre stage one at a time. Each one of us had a chat with the emcee who asked us different questions,” recalls Bonnie.

Forest Festival Queen Bonnie Brunais during a parade. (Courtesy photo/Bonnie Harnish)

“I remember one of the questions I was asked was, ‘Where did you get those big, black buttons on your dress?’ My answer was ‘from a button factory of course.’ When the chat was over I was the only one that walked off the stage on the wrong side and I knew right then that I blew it, so it was a surprise that the judges named me as the 1961 National Forest Festival Queen.”

While life experiences come and go, what we are left with are the memories — even though those too can sometimes fade away. However, it’s clear from chatting with Bonnie that she will never forget the events that transpired in her life during 1961.

“Thinking back, I will always remember how my family and hometown of Bear Lake supported me and the many hundreds of letters and cards I received from all over the United States congratulating me. 1961 was a whirlwind year for me as everything happened so fast. I believe I was truly blessed in many ways.”

As if being crowned queen twice in one year wasn’t enough, there is still an interesting coda to Bonnie’s adventures in 1961. It was announced by the National Red Cherry Institute that they were discontinuing the Cherry Pie Baking Contest in Michigan, which made Bonnie Brunais-Harnish the last Cherry Pie Baking Queen.

After we were just about through with our chat and were in the midst of our goodbyes, Bonnie said she was leaving the pie for me to take home and, as I’ve never been one to refuse the gift of pastry, I gratefully accepted her beautiful present. Later that evening, as I dusted off another two pieces (small pieces!) of the baked good, I jotted jokingly in my notebook:

“If Manistee County was a monarchy in 1961 it probably would have been ruled by Bonnie Brunais.”

Reading back that scribbled phrase, it’s probably safe to say that Manistee County will never be made a monarchy. But if it is, there’s no doubt that Bonnie Harnish could still be considered its queen. However, if for some reason she wasn’t, there’s a pretty good chance that our chosen sovereigns would at least have their fill of cherry pie.

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