Vermont Fair: Tradition and Flair

Fred Allen has come here for 70 years; LeAnn Rimes is a new addition.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Fred Allen sits in a small, open tent framed by wooden pitchforks just a few feet from a big display of shiny new tractors. The air is damp and laden with the syrupy scents of cotton candy, fried dough and sizzling Italian sausage.

Beneath an Amish straw hat, Mr. Allen deftly maneuvers an old shaving knife along a slim stick of hickory. He rarely looks up.

"I've been coming here back since the 1920s," says Allen, as he smooths what will become the handle of a traditional Vermont pitchfork. "It's a lot different from when they used to have the 'girlie' shows and all that drinking. A lot cleaner, too."

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Every summer for 76 years, the Champlain Valley Exposition - or what most Vermonters simply call the Essex Fair - has marked the beginning of the end of summer. For 10 days, after most of the harvesting's done, more than 300,000 people flock to the fairgrounds from around the state. Some come to show off their 100-pound pumpkins, others to compete for the best looking Holstein or the finest tasting apple pie.

But in an era when high tech has squeezed out whole milk as a mainstay of the state's economy, many people come simply to be reminded of a past that's quickly disappearing.

"A lot of people here in Chittenden County don't know anything about farming or farm animals anymore," says Ann Brown, a Morgan horse breeder from Westford, Vt. She'd brought "Mettleweed J.P. Morgan," a gentle chestnut brown gelding, to show at the fair.

When it was started in 1922, most people in Vermont, indeed, much of the country were farmers. It was almost purely an agricultural event. Farmers came together to compete and share growing tips, learn about new seed varieties and planting techniques, at the same time they got an opportunity to blow off some steam after a long, hard summer in the fields.

There was always lots of entertainment, from the 'girlie shows' to swing-time bands. But the heifer competition was always one of the biggest draws.

Now, with only 2 percent of Vermonters involved in farming, it's headliners like Vince Gill and LeAnn Rimes who pack the grandstands. There's still a milking demonstration everyday, but it's at "4:00 p.m. Only," in one of the side barns.

Ms. Brown is concerned that those agricultural roots, and the values they impart, are disappearing so fast, "50 years from now, no one will know how to be self-sufficient."

The fair's organizers are just as worried. "Most people now have no idea of how that milk gets on their table," says George Rousseau, the director of the Exposition's sales and marketing.

So the organizers work hard to keep the fair's agricultural flavor, but in many ways, it's become a side show, rather than the main event. Pitchfork-maker Fred Allen points out that he's the only native Vermonter ensconced in the early American tools section. The blacksmith, ropemaker, and broommaker all had to be imported in from out of state.

"They pay me to be here," says Allen, running his hand along the partial pitchfork he's been carving. "I wouldn't even think of renting a tent for what they'd charge you here. You think I could make any money, at those prices?"

Jeff Marcotte, whose family has been selling chocolate-covered bananas and fried ice cream at the fair for the past 16 years, says the fair has changed, but for the better. "They're a lot more professional now," he says, pouring caramel over a steaming hot ball of deep-fried frozen ice cream. "But this is still very much of a family thing."

Frank Indelicato says he comes every year just so can see what's different - from llamas and camels in the petting zoo to the man from Wisconsin who carves statues out of cheddar cheese. This year, he also brought his 15-month-old son Steven Todd for the first time. "It's important to remember where we come from," says Mr. Indelicato, brushing the llamas away from his amazed and delighted son. "But you also just need to have a good time."

That, says Mr. Rousseau is the whole point of the fair, and proof, that no matter how much things change at the fair, in many ways, they stay the same.

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