Fair-goers have drained away from the grounds of the Haddam Neck Fair, which, tucked in a bucolic section of Haddam, always marks Labor Day weekend. There the carnival rides have been packed up, the last skillet in the Ladies Skillet Throwing contest has been retrieved and the blue-ribbon-winning chickens have been carted home, leaving the poultry barn quiet once again.
But Connecticut residents still have plenty of fun, food and entertainment lying ahead as the state reaches its agricultural fair high season. What starts as a trickle, the North Stonington Agricultural Fair in mid-July being perhaps the earliest, becomes a stream with August fairs in Hamburg, Bridgewater, Chester and others. Now, as September ripens and farm stands groan with end-of-summer produce and a burgeoning supply of fall apples, fairs are popping up all over.
The Biggest Of Them All
Although Connecticut fairs offer plenty of choices, it's hard to ignore West Springfield's Big E, which opened Sept. 14 for its 17-day run. Billed as New England's largest fair, the Big E is like the more modest agricultural fairs, just on fertilizer. Connecticut has its own building at the Big E, which allows it to show off its history, promote its business and tourist areas, and serve up food that ranges from flavored pumpkin seeds to chocolate-covered bacon.
Food, particularly plates heaped high with fried dough sprinkled with sugar, or fried onion rings along with sweet drinks made with freshly squeezed lemons and limes, hits the spot (and the waistline) after a few hours of wandering past the carefully tended cows, giant draft horses and prize-winning tomatoes.
"Bigger and better," the fairs might advertise on their fliers, but part of the attraction is the reassuring sameness of it all. Fairgoers might make a beeline for the civic club booth selling its "famous" foot-long hot dogs, farmers tending their horses before the pulls or the building with the photo exhibit, including some that make the kids elbow each other.
Fair organizers know to be careful when moving different attractions from their usual locations. Times change — there's the latest junk food sensation making a hit at other fairs, new rides appear in the carnival area, but it still has to feel the same.
Behind The Scenes
From year to year, the heart of each fair is the dozens of volunteers — many of whom take vacation time to prepare the grounds for visitors — who might paint the trim on the buildings, make sure the electrical outlets all work and clean up the trash at the end of each day. This is the fair within the fair. As hundreds and thousands of fairgoers roam the midway, listen to the country music or watch the mini-pigs race, volunteers are making it all work.
Unseen by the fairgoer are the year-round meetings where volunteers work to make sure the problem in the cow barn is solved for next year, the contract for the big-name country band is properly written and signed, and the recipes for the baking contests are chosen. Putting on a fair takes a range of skills that draws in people who might not otherwise work together or socialize. It taps at the very roots of the town from which the fair sprang, in many cases more than century ago.
Not to over-romanticize the small-town coziness of it all, but fairs are good for communities. They bring neighbors in contact with neighbors, they make friends out of people who might otherwise be strangers to one another in the market. And they give us all something to look forward to just before the hard frost comes, the days grow short and winter arrives.