The Naturalist's Journal

Photo Courtesy of Bruce Fellman

There are many contests at every fair that feature attempts to determine strength. The Naturalist’s favorite steers clear of gasoline-powered engines, as well-coordinated teams of oxen and their human minders vie for honors in pulling concrete weights.

 

As tropical storms go, a recent visitor named Elsa wasn’t particularly notable. Just in case, I had the generator and the emergency supplies ready, but, unless the not-really-a-gale delivered more than just copious amounts of rain—over four inches, when all was said, done, and totaled—we didn’t expect much more than a blessed soaking on the ridge. Still, we worried that Elsa, indirectly, had the potential to cause a particularly awful casualty.

The storm, some of us feared, might kill that most precious of rural events: the North Stonington Agricultural Fair.

Last year, of course, the Fair, which would then have been in its 57th edition, fell victim to COVID-19. But while the tough decision to cancel what is traditionally the kick-off event of Connecticut’s agricultural showcase season was made both for public health reasons and to ensure that the event would be financially possible when, hopefully, the pandemic eased, there was considerable concern that the proverbial “wait until next year” optimism might actually be code for “that’s all, folks.”

Praise the Lord, it wasn’t, and even the impressively soggy weather on the 8th and the 9th, which lead to the cancellation of the Friday evening programming, couldn’t kill the spirit. The sun broke through on Saturday, and when I arrived on a sparkling late afternoon on Geezer Day, when admission to the Fair was half-price for anyone past a, um, certain age, I was almost teary-eyed when I took in the biggest crowd I’d ever seen at the Grange grounds. The parking lot, normally a grassy field, was almost full, and, to make my attendance even cheerier, the woman at the ticket booth charged me full price for what should have been a discounted ticket and made me produce my driver’s license to prove that I wasn’t really a kid with prematurely distinguished silver hair. “You’re that old?” the charmer declared quizzically, carefully examining my documentation. “I never would have guessed.”

“Bless you,” I responded, not caring whether she was genuine or just well-educated in flattery. (Maybe she worked the carnival contests when she wasn’t in the ticket booth.)

And, just as I’d done annually for several decades, I joined the throngs as we moved past the cacophony of the truck pull, the quiet clinking of the blacksmiths fashioning beauty and utility out of iron, the cheery welcome sign, and pathways leading in all directions.

I quickly strolled beyond the myriad food carts that offered all manner of delights, from pulled pork, pizza, and corn dogs to the piece de resistance, “extreme fried dough.” As I inhaled the seductive aromas of all those artery-clogging items, I received a text, directly in my brain, from my pacemaker-defibrillator imploring me to be strong and keep moving. (OK, I made that last part up—my implanted device can’t translate smells into suggested actions... yet...) I also knew that I’d have to avoid giving in to the temptation of the Grange’s Ham and Bean Dinner and, instead, sustain myself on memories and a package of saturated-fat-free, multigrain sourdough rye thins from Finland. If such things were possible, my cardiac minder would have given me a digital pat on the back.

Next on my path was the obligatory trek around the midway where a venerable company named Rockwell Amusements has long provided all manner of entertaining ways to be parted from one’s disposable income. The various contests kept the multitudes busy trying to win something, and an assortment of daunting rides—no Ferris Wheel this year, but the Zipper remains a stalwart—challenged the fairgoers ability to keep all that food in its proper place.

The sounds and sights of happy screams and screamers, some of which I captured with my camera, brought a non-stop smile to my soul. Kids busied themselves trying to throw hatchets into targets, semi-professional wrestlers attempted to coerce their opponents into submission, which, in one amusing case, involved a grappler in need of a hug, and live country music streamed over an appreciative crowd.

The heart of the Fair, however, was none of the above. True, since the beginning of agriculture and civilization more than ten thousand years ago, members of our species have gathered together periodically to celebrate this good earth and the men and women adept at coercing it to yield up its riches. That’s what a fair is truly all about, and, if you know where to look, this one certainly embraces that age-old tradition. 

So I left the hubbub behind and headed for the cattle barn where prized and pampered bovines, each “dressed” to the nines, had vied for coveted blue ribbons, the acknowledgment of excellence in all manner of fair competitions. What’s always fun for me is to watch a kind of evolution at play here: farming used to be a mostly male business, with woman playing an important but completely different role geared towards support and sustenance—a role celebrated at the arts and crafts exhibits. Now, there are farms named for the “Grumpy Girls” and the “Four Daughters,” and a young woman minding the cows was reading Jane Eyre instead of Farm Journal. While the best-of-show apple pie was baked by a woman, she had male competition, and that was equally the case among the traditionally female categories, from quilting to fabric arts.

At least one small flock of goats was managed under the watchful eye of a minder in possession of two X-chromosomes, and there were plenty of women represented as owners of the rabbits, ducks, geese, and chickens on display at the poultry house.

Indeed, about the only place I saw on Saturday night without any female participation was at the wheel of the truck pull and the drivership of the oxen bent on dragging the most weight the mandatory six feet. (The stands, I hasten to note, were packed with partisans of all sexes.)

Thank the Lord and the good weather for the Fair’s final two days, the annual gathering appears likely to go on in 2022—barring, to be sure, the return of the plague. And while we wait, there’s plenty of natural richness to celebrate, from a variety of wild fruit and vegetable harvests, to an abundance of amphibians enabled to grow to maturity in the absence of drought and the continued success of “our” Wild Turkey family, still ten-strong in the presence of mom’s eternal vigilance and a miraculous lack of predators. 

The warm air carries the sight and heady scent of Sweet William flowers, and if you listen ever so carefully you can hear the munching of caterpillars turning leaves into incipient butterflies—the faux-eyed larvae of Tiger Swallowtails and the fantastically horned Red-spotted Purples, among others. Wherever you find it, come to the Fair... and rejoice. 

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