With Labor Day weekend upon us, upstate New Yorkers are presented with a simple fact: Fair season is coming to an end.
After Monday, those wishing to go to a county fair in upstate New York will have to wait until 2014, although those with a serious fair bug can attend the Long Island Fair, held this year from Sept. 20 to 22 and Sept. 27 to 29 in Old Bethpage.
I had the privilege of covering the Otsego, Chenango and Delaware county fairs this year. Covering these events was a great experience and it also reminded me of the special place county fairs hold for this area.
I grew up in rural Delaware County, about 30 minutes away from the Delaware County Fairgrounds in Walton. As a 4-H member and a farm kid, I went to the fair every year from the time I was a toddler until I left for college. Yet, even if I hadn’t been exhibiting vegetables or doing public presentations, there’s no doubt in my mind that I would have continued to attend.
Growing up in the middle of the country has definitely given me a high tolerance for driving. Friends of mine from outside upstate New York have often been quite surprised by how far I am willing to travel to go to an event or see people.
I suspect that a lot of this comes from being home-schooled and having to make my own fun from an early age. For me, that often meant getting out of the hills. Many of my neighbors in the country, however, hardly ever left, keeping to themselves and their properties whenever work wasn’t involved.
Except during fair season.
It’s been my experience that county fairs bring out everyone, from the social butterflies to the most dedicated hermits. They also help to bridge the regional divide, bringing together friends from different towns who might never have met each other, or stayed in contact, if it weren’t for their county’s fair.
When I was covering the Delaware County Fair this year, I read the account of Bowman H. Owen in a letter to the editor of a local publication.
A resident of Lew Beach, he first made the journey to the Delaware County Fair in 1906 when he was a young boy. He and his family traveled by horse-drawn wagon, and it took them two days to get there and two days to get back — for one day at the fair. Owen, however, wrote about it fondly and it was Owen’s dying wish that his letter recounting this trip be published.
I heard sentiments similar to Owen’s from Lewis Miller when he talked about the Otsego County Fair. Miller, the longtime president of the Otsego County Fair, is one of the people chiefly responsible for bringing Harness racing to the Otsego County Fairgrounds.
Such an appreciation was also apparent when I interviewed Mary Oakes, whose family first ran the midway at the Chenango County Fair decades ago.
The common thread I found, both in interviewing people and walking around at these three fairs, was this: County fairs draw people together, in a basic, human way.
Take away the food, the events, the rides, the exhibits and the contests, and you still have something: an event that a community can structure its year around. People go to the fair not just because of what’s being offered, but because it’s there, and they know others will be there as well. It’s a place to see and be seen, a massive communal dance where everyone is invited.
There are other events like this in this area. Colorscape Chenango Arts Festival, which will be held in Norwich on Sept. 7 and 8, most readily comes to mind. But I know I’m not the only who’s curious about what next year’s county fairs will bring.
BERA DUNAU is a staff writer at The Daily Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.