What does it say about me that my enthusiasm for the Washington County Fair has waned over the years?
Let’s be clear. I am not saying that I have lost all interest in the Fair. I am alive and they serve funnel cakes so I still get a little rush of excitement when fair time comes around again. But nothing like the excitement I felt when we first settled in Easton. It was quickly apparent to us that the Fair was the most important local event–and possibly simply the most important event for locals, coming in slightly ahead of Christmas, elections, perfect bowling scores, barn fires and even the best gossip. For us it was a great way to get to know the place where we had chosen to live.
Farming remains central not just to the local economy, but to local life. A good milking herd, a neat barn yard, robust corn, a well plowed field–these things command respect. As does the number of quarts of tomato sauce you put up each year, or the ability to lay out a real lunch for the whole family every day in addition to helping with barn chores and keeping the flower beds well tended. The locals have retained a connection to the land, a sense of history, a belief on community, a wariness about urban life, a preference for barter, an understanding of the seasons that would have seemed commonplace across the nation a hundred years ago, but that sets these folks apart from their compatriots now.
The Fair is the chance to celebrate this way of life–to show off your best cow, check out the latest machinery, compete in the tractor pull arena, chat with the seed and fertilizer and equipment dealers, run into everybody you know, and eat cotton candy (maple cotton candy, if you know what you are doing) and french fries all the while. You don’t just go to the Fair. You move there for the week. You set up a trailer by your animals. Your older kids stay in the 4H dormitory. You get up early to wash your cows and trim their tails just so, take them over for their turn in the milking parlor, haul the dirty bedding straw away in a wheelbarrow. And for that one week you get to do your chores right alongside all the other farmers. Agriculture, normally a pretty solitary occupation for determinedly independent sorts, becomes a communal enterprise. It is a welcome reminder that in some way everyone is in it together even if you would all rather die than have anyone else tell you what to do on your own farms.
We chose to move to Washington County because it is beautiful and affordable (don’t tell anyone), but we settled in because of the nature of life here–because of the way people like our neighbors, Bill and Anne Connor, who could so easily have regarded this overeducated young couple from Manhattan with deep and abiding suspicion, welcomed us. Sure we were outsiders, but the simple fact that we wanted to live here–and where else would you want to live?–was enough to make us part of the community. Bill, who was born on the farm across the street and spent the rest of his life there, would stop by in his pickup for laconic chats from the driver’s seat about the weather or how the corn was looking and Anne would drop off cookies and gossip about people we did not know.
Having taken to the local culture, we awaited its greatest moment, the Fair, with considerable excitement. And for a few years it did not disappoint. We would go multiple times, make our way through all the barns, admire the chickens and tractors, root for Red English at the tractor pull. And we would drag friends from out of town along, who never quite shared our enthusiasm, which just helped prove that we were going native.
But we have lived here 18 years now, and the thrill has worn off. Cows are not actually that interesting and all the stands selling hot tubs and miracle cleaning devices and poorly made western wear are harder to ignore, as is the fact that everyone looks more or less the same (the Hispanic dairy farm workers don’t seem to make it to the Fair that often). The food is expensive and really not that tasty (who thought serving a hot dog in a thick cornmeal coating would be a good idea?). There’s no doubt the Fair remains a great introduction to Washington County’s rural culture, but we don’t require an introduction at this point.
Perhaps I have just become enough of a local to feel cynical about the Fair. Perhaps I have earned the right now to grouse about it, lament that it’s somehow not quite like it once was. Except it is pretty much like it was when we moved here and I don’t notice a lot of locals being cynical about it. They may not feel quite the anthropological zeal we did early on, but they continue to treat it as a serious and exciting event. Caroline, who worked here this summer and is a about to be a junior in high school, was busy studying chicken facts so she could compete in chicken showmanship. She was also entering some photographs and a rooster in competition. If a fairly sophisticated fifteen-year-old girl (she goes to Emma Willard) whose family has lived in Easton for about two and a half centuries can get excited about the Fair then my cynicism is not a result of my full integration into local life.
I am afraid that it may result, instead, from my still being something of an outsider. Despite the warm welcome from our neighbors, despite our children being born here, despite the tan lines and oil stains and fatalism, I lack that profound sense of belonging that the Fair serves to reinforce. I may have studied the Fair long enough to learn about local life and even take up local ways. That does not make me local. I was raised elsewhere with too much book learning, too little faith, too many jokes, too few wrenches. Like an anthropologist embedded in an alien culture, I can never quite bridge that gap between me and the people who truly belong to it. And so for me the Fair always just remains a fair, and after 18 years it is tough to maintain the initial enthusiasm about a lot of good looking cows getting together in one place. Fortunately, no matter where you come from the pleasure of funnel cake never wanes, so I have that to look forward to.