By Arline A. Fleming
Published June 11. 2014 4:00AM
Editor's note: You can view the summer issue of Sound & Country on The Day's new iMag, here
In this quiet corner of Connecticut where state forests and parks are green and plentiful, the Woodstock Fair, which dates back to 1859, is woven into the area’s history — stamped on calendars like the first day of school.
“It is always Labor Day Weekend,” and for many families, it’s their way to close the summer every year, said Susan Lloyd, president of this venerable New England mainstay. The fair is always filled with tradition, be it in the cinnamon-scented apple pie contests, the lush agricultural exhibits or the robust animal contests. Yet the event also has an up-to-date Facebook page, a bright and zippy brochure, and bragging rights for being one of the few area fairs where the birth of animals can actually be witnessed — if the timing is right — in a birthing center designed just for that experience.
This year, Labor Day falls on the first of September, so the fair actually opens on Friday, Aug. 29, continuing through Monday, Sept. 1, “rain or shine,” Lloyd said.
Held across 50 acres on Routes 169 and 171 in South Woodstock, the fair includes exhibitions, midway rides, carnival games and entertainment on various stages. This year, look for country singer and songwriter Phil Vassar, Friday at 8 p.m.; Grammy nominated blues-rock band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Saturday at 8 p.m.; music legend Kenny Rogers, Sunday at 8 p.m., and singer-songwriter Sara Evans on Monday at 3:30 p.m. on the main stage.
An estimated 175,000 people are expected over the course of the four-day fair, which had its beginnings with its sponsoring organization, the Woodstock Agricultural Society. In 1859, the society consisted of about 211 people who paid the fifty cents to become members. Descendants of that early group are still involved in the fair, people such as local dairy farmer Dexter Young. Young is a past president who sees the fair as an opportunity for farmers to come together and compare notes on crops and animals.
“It’s a proving ground, whether it is seed or cattle or horses or whatever,” he said, pointing out that if a farmer sees an impressive exhibit, he’ll likely want to produce the same type of successful plant or animal, like a baker yearning to produce someone else’s prize-winning pie recipe. It’s a formula that has worked for years.
The first exhibition was held in 1859 — with fruits, flowers and manufactured goods exhibited in the vestry of the South Woodstock Baptist Church. Admission was ten cents. And despite two bulls reportedly charging their barricades, the event was declared a success.
Though the fair has grown in terms of crowd numbers, square footage, attractions and paid and volunteer staff, both Young and Lloyd say the core intent is to promote and preserve a forum for farmers to share their expertise.
“The best way to do it is to provide this venue and showcase different aspects of agriculture,” said Lloyd.
And on top of that, “it’s just a good time,” added Young.
Lloyd says what stands out about the Woodstock Fair is its variety. “There’s something for everyone, from babies to seniors.” Board members attend a variety of other fairs throughout New England, she said, taking notes and photographs and reporting back with ideas.
“We’re always looking for ways to make our fair better, to make a good experience for fair-goers,” Lloyd said.
One draw is the giant pumpkin contest. The Woodstock Fair is a Great Pumpkin Commonwealth-certified event.
“Last year we attracted one from Pennsylvania,” Lloyd said, still amazed that the grower was able and willing to bring the overweight gourd to Connecticut, where it was joined by more than two dozen others.
“It takes hours and hours to get them positioned. We have a dedicated team that comes to do this,” she explained.
Though there is a lot to see, what’s a country fair without sampling various foods? Woodstock Fair Concessions Manager Reid Chamberlin said he expects at least 100 food vendors offering specialty ice creams and deep fried desserts, along with “the classics that people expect to find at the fair,” though there is always something from the “unusual” category, too, such as last year’s Cajun seafood offerings, including alligator.
Chamberlin said in total there are more than 300 vendors, including informational booths and the artisans and craftspeople who set up in a tranquil, landscaped area.
Woodstock Fair Horse Show co-supervisor Christina Daigneault notes that this fair’s multi-day horse show is one of the largest in the area “with 250 classes held from Friday afternoon until Monday afternoon.” In addition to the awards earned in the competitions, awards are also given out in a stall decorating contest, she said.
Lloyd said the fairgrounds and restroom facilities are paved and wheelchair-accessible. Strollers and wheelchairs can be rented by the North Gate entrance, where there is also handicapped-accessible parking. There are several areas for sitting, with most of them covered, she said, and there is also a grassy area for fairgoers to sit on their own blankets and chairs in front of the main stage.
The fair and the Woodstock Agricultural Society, Inc. contribute to a number of area scholarships, and fair proceeds support other area agricultural programs and events. For information, visit www.celebratingagriculture.org