Rediscovering the Simple Pleasures of a Fair
What’s the most refreshing and rejuvenating thing you can do this summer?
by Derek Doeffinger
Sure, you could hop in a waterfall, canoe Canadice Lake or pick blueberries in Penn Yan. Here in the Finger Lakes, there are hundreds of activities to help you flush your frazzled brain and restore harmony to your being. One of my personal favorites is walking around a fair. If you take your time, if you skirt the crowds, you’ll find yourself hanging out in Norman Rockwell’s world.
Last year I went to the dairy barn and watched a farmer who could’ve made millions
in Hollywood – as a hairdresser. This field-hardened stylist spent an hour meticulously and methodically primping his Hereford. Under a spotlight, he combed and clipped it with decimal precision – actually measuring his work with a ruler. Hair dryer, hair spray, scented oils, hoof cream, and assorted other accouterments were all applied as needed. His cow was ready to walk the runway in Milan.
Just one barn-aisle over, three farm kids seemed to be wrestling an octopus off their cow. Actually, they were wielding vacuum nozzles to suck up every last bit of straw, dirt, and feed from its coat.
Images of everyday life like these pop up everywhere at a fair. My favorite is the teenage court of formally attired queen and princesses looking regal, even as they trudge from the muddy midway into the pie tent in muck boots. Not even Norman Rockwell could have thought up combining muckers with gowned teenagers and a shelf full of homemade pies.
I also recall an image of the grinning, free-spirited carny kid from Florida’s Panhandle who time and again hefted a mallet high over his head to show yet another pint-sized boy just how “easy” it is to ring the bell.
Unfortunately, sentimental excess leads to salivary excess. The next best fair activity? Chowing down evil food. Deep-fried oreos? Yum. Funnel cakes? Don’t get mad if I cut in line. Chocolate-covered strawberries dipped in waffle batter and deep fried? Call 911 – I’m going in.
The size of the fair largely determines the number of activities available and the fair’s personality. You might find leaping llamas at the state fair, a goat obstacle course at the Wayne County Fair, or a homemade slingshot range at the Ionia fair. The smaller fairs (Ionia is one, along with Pumpkin Hook, Hector, and Ludlowville) are like big block parties. At the Pumpkin Hook fair, the itty bitty kids’ parade featured a mother towing two princesses: one regally reclining in a red wagon and the other strolling and waving to the crowd.
Although the Ionia fair lasts only a day, it offers a parade with great traction and games charmingly homemade. Tractors of all sizes, shapes, origins, and stages of decline (same for the drivers) are welcome to chug out of the farm field behind the church to join the parade. There’s even a rusted junkyard escapee that had to be towed (anticipating that possibility, its driver brought a chain).
The midsize fairs include most county fairs and a few town fairs like Trumansburg and Hemlock. They feature a variety of farm-style contests, extreme auto entertainment, and musical acts with an emphasis (but not solely) on country. Tractor and horse pulls, square dances, harness races, celebrity goat milking, and talent contests rule. And here is where the wacky foods show up in all their dietary depravity.
At some point in your life, you have to attend The Great New York State Fair. Although it may lack the intimacy and neighborliness of the smaller fairs, everything else is available in excess. You won’t be bored. In attendance over 10 days are one million people and 10 thousand animals. There is also a wealth of entertainment options, including high-end musical acts.
Two Worlds in One
Except for some small fairs, every fair consists of two worlds. They’re easy to tell apart, because one is outdoors and the other is indoors, or under a tent. Outdoors overflows with action and adrenaline and decadent foods and dizzying rides. Indoors abounds with animals, agriculture, and the farming life.
To see the real purpose of a fair, head indoors for an hour or two. There you’ll find the reality of rural life on display and learn that for many farming families, the fair is the highlight of their year. This is their time to showcase their farms, their animals, their kids, their skills, their lifestyle. For many, it’s a decades-long tradition. At the Ontario County Fair, 5-year-old Grant Pyra beamed proudly in front of a crowd as he received a ribbon for pig showmanship. His mother Amy started showing at fairs when she was 7. His grandparents met as teens at 4-H.
Indoors, you’ll see (and smell) amazing things. You’ll find exhibits, demonstrations, displays and discussions that cover just about everything that’s encountered by a farming family.
Indoors you’ll see (and smell) amazing things. You’ll find exhibits, demonstrations, displays and discussions that cover just about everything encountered by a farming family. At the Wayne County Fair, look for the display of veggies and fruits made of winners from more 100 categories, from thimbleberries to Fellenberg Prunes and from chard to borage. A blue ribbon is worth a $5 prize, the best pie gets $50.
If domesticity is your bliss, you’ll be pleased to hear that it encompasses more than 300 fair categories including crocheting, creweling, quilting, knitting, flower gardening and arranging, sewing, beet canning, fruit juice canning, handmade dressed dolls, painting (oil, water, and acrylic), ceramics, basket weaving, dried flower arranging, and a lot more.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about fairs is what you don’t see: the massive volunteer effort. Dozens, sometimes a hundred or more volunteers, put in thousands of hours to make a fair successful. As soon as the Wayne County Fair ends, for example, planning for it begins all over again. I’m sure that happens with most fairs.
“Without volunteers there would not be a fair,” says Laurie McFaul of the Wayne County Fair. “Volunteers are the backbone of our success.”
A Short History of Modern Fairs
Fairs as places to gather and sell or barter goods and food probably date back to the earliest civilizations. But the first fair in the United States is generally attributed to Elkanah Watson who convened it in 1807 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; he wanted to promote his Merino sheep and invited neighbors to join in. He even offered prizes as an inducement. Watson actually canoed Cayuga Lake and bought property in several villages around Cortland, such as Cincinnatus, Homer, Marathon, and Solon.
Started in 1841, The Great New York State Fair at 178 years is the oldest state fair in the country. The Ontario County Fair is 176 years old. The Trumansburg Fair is 169 years old, the Wayne County Fair 163 years, and the Hemlock Fair 163 years.
From the beginning agricultural societies have promoted the majority of state and county fairs. The purpose has always been to recognize and promote farmers and the rural life; in other words to make sure we have food, that necessity of life very few of us have ever gone without.
When should you go?
If you like certain events (or want to avoid certain events), it’s pretty obvious you should check the fair schedule. Otherwise I like to go late afternoon so I can wander about in the bright light and see the things I like to see (mostly animals) but still have enough energy left to be there when twilight settles in and all the lights begin to glow and flash. As the darkness grows, so does the mystery and excitement.
You can find all the dates for New York county fairs at https://www.nyfairs.org,