Did you enjoy the Ulster County Fair, a couple of weeks back? Good; maybe now you’re ready for the Big Time – meaning that Granddaddy of agricultural extravaganzas in our region, the 160+-year-old Dutchess County Fair. The second-largest county fair in New York State, the largest that runs six days and by some “industry insider” accounts the best six-day fair in the whole country, the Dutchess “do” is so big that the entire Ulster County Fair would fit inside the area reserved just for livestock. When it returns to the beautifully landscaped, garden-studded 162-acre Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck on August 24th, 400,000 to 500,000 people (presumably not counting any stragglers from Chelsea Clinton’s wedding party) are expected to attend, if the weather is favorable.
With a heavy emphasis on agricultural traditions, this Fair is grounds for serious competition among the heavy hitters of the 4H Club world and farmers in general. Expect to see thousands of perfectly groomed critters competing in every category (there’s even a Dairy Birthing Tent), along with equestrian events, tons of award-worthy produce, baked goods, pickles and preserves: the usual wholesome family fare, but on a mega scale. The Fair’s long but somewhat discontinuous pedigree goes back to the formation of the Dutchess County Agricultural Society in 1842 “to continue the development of agriculture, household manufactured items and domestic produce.” It may seem ironic in these days of Tea Party protests of any kind of “non-essential” government spending that the founding of the Society was made possible by a grant in the grand sum of $157 from the New York State Legislature: pork for pork, you might say.
The first official Fair was held in Washington Hollow in 1842, and it persisted for a long time in that same location, currently occupied by New York State Police barracks. The Fair was also held off and on in downtown Poughkeepsie, in the area of what are now Mill and Catherine Streets. Financial setbacks canceled the 1916 and 1918 Fairs, and in 1917 the Poughkeepsie site was commandeered to mobilize home-front support for the war effort. In 1919 the directorate of the Society was reorganized and a new location was chosen: Springbrook Park in Rhinebeck, which has since expanded into the current site. The 1927 and 1928 Fairs were flooded out, attendance languished during the Depression years and the 1942 Fair was canceled due to World War II; but the end of gasoline rationing after 1945 finally led to a boom cycle for the Fair that has persisted even into the present Recession. At $15 admission for adults ($12 if purchased before opening day) and free admission for kids under 12, it’s a good deal even in tough times – and even if rides do cost extra.
That huge midway of thrill rides is a big draw for some, especially the teenage crowd, but there’s plenty more to do, of course, especially for the kids. An Antiques Museum Village, a one-room schoolhouse, a working blacksmith shop, a gas-powered engine show, a working sugarhouse and cider mill all illustrate rural lifestyles of yesteryear. One longtime Fair attendee clued me in that the true don’t-miss event is the annual horseshoe-toss competition, which draws ancient practitioners out of the hills and hollers whose killer aerodynamic techniques invariably blow the young upstarts right out of the pit. There are arts and crafts vendors, a wildlife exhibit, a “farm-to-table” food building that will delight locavores, an environmental “green tent” and a host of vendors of everything imaginable.
Daily free shows and attractions include the brand-new Bixby’s Rain Forest Revue and a sand sculpture activity, plus Commerford’s Petting Zoo of Exotic Animals, Six-Pony Hitch and Elephant Encounter; the Marionette Star Theater Puppet Show; Rosaire’s Racing Pigs; Gary the Silent Clown; and Brown’s High Dive Show. Building E (for Entertainment) hosts the Mad Science Show, cooking demonstrations in the Harvest Kitchen, woodcarving and rug-hooking demonstrations and an exhibit called “Headline History: the Top 40 New Stories of Our Time.” The Entertainment Tent features a Beatles tribute band called Strawberry Fields, a band named Vocal Trash that performs entirely on musical instruments made out of recycled junk, a Mexican mariachi band, Fritz’s Polka Band, local Latin-beat faves Soñando, the Dock Diving Dogs and of course, the much-anticipated DC Fair Talent Search competitions.
Then there are the Grandstand evening concerts, which bring out the country music and oldies crowds in spite of the $20-to-$30 additional admission price. Tuesday’s show, pairing the aforementioned Beatles tribute with The Boys in Concert, reuniting four stars from the original Broadway cast of Jersey Boys, is actually free, to draw in the crowds on what is usually the Fair’s slowest day. Country star George Jones comes in on Wednesday, Montgomery Gentry on Thursday, ‘70s/‘80s hitmakers Foreigner on Friday and Joe Nichols with Gloriana on Saturday.
If all this sounds like an overwhelming amount to take in, and trekking through miles of aisles of Fairgrounds isn’t your idea of a good time, fret not: There are wheelchairs, strollers, wagons and scooters for rent at the Main Gate. Gates, vendors and exhibits are open from 10 a.m. through 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, August 24 through 29; rides and food vendors linger on until 11 p.m. For further information, including advance-purchase ticket discounts and package deals, visit www.dutchessfair.com/tickets.php.