On the last weekend of September, tiny Durham, Connecticut, hosts the Lollapalooza of county fairs. Driven by over a hundred years of community pride, Durham’s seven thousand residents welcome two hundred thousand visitors to the largest fair in Connecticut.
There are rock concerts; a carnival midway; mechanized rides; fried everything; and demonstrations, from quilting to canning to milking in the Cow Palace. “At the heart of it all is agriculture,” says former fair president Daniel Miramant in a 2016 documentary. The fair boasts over one thousand competitions. Some of those competitions include Best Livestock (cows, sheep, rabbits, name your favorite small creature), Horse Pulls, Best Art, and Best Baking. Any child, grandparent, or average farmer can enter any or all of these. The Durham Fair is like a human agriculture Google search, where you can find the solution to your question right there.
Inside the gate are bright green and blue bounce houses for kids. Down the path, food stands fill the air with the scents of fried dough, hot dogs, barbecue, fish and chips, and poutine. Vendors take up a large chunk of the fairground’s real estate, from corporate behemoths like T-Mobile and army recruiting to local businesses like Leaf and Gutter Removal and Webz Studios. On a raised platform, a large crowd enjoys the Pool Party Pooches. Various breeds and sizes of dogs take a running start on a narrow platform and lunge over a pool to catch a black, hot dog-shaped toy with rainbow streamers. Spectators can stand in the splash zone, where they run the risk of getting sprayed with water.
Deeper within the fifty acres of fairgrounds, lights flash and blink on the carnival midway. A carousel churns with kids cheering on the various metallic horses. Kids run into the mirror maze, thumping into themselves. The volunteer carnies plead with visitors to pay to throw darts at balloons to win a stuffed prize. Beneath the bright lights, local volunteers canvas the grounds in their neon shirts. They work these games, information desks, and food stands.
For thirteen years, Durham resident Debbie Huscher has worked as the fair’s Marketing Coordinator. She leads the legion of neon shirts. After shooting an interview with NBC, she took a step back next to the site-wide map bulletin board, and admired the hundreds of people walking the beaten pavement path; live music filling the air between all the visitors’ conversations. She wore skinny jeans and a black v-neck, with blue bedazzled print of the words Durham Fair, and a white bedazzled cow. “It’s very busy. I barely had a moment to spend with my husband here today,” she said with a bright smile.
“This is the largest agricultural fair in Connecticut and one of the largest all-volunteer fairs in the country,” Huscher said, but that is not why people come to this fair. “It’s really the volunteering here that sets us apart. We have a really big sense of community at our fair.”
The Durham Fair opened in 1916. It started as a one day event, and grew to become a four-day weekend spectacle. The fair has used its success for good, awarding scholarships to students and helping repair the Durham Town Hall and Durham Library. “What’s really awesome about the fair is that new generations, year after year, get involved with the fair and they actually keep the fair alive,” said Miramant.
Through the middle of the fairgrounds, there is a gigantic hill, almost splitting it in half. Tom Dutch, from Middletown, reached the top nearly out of breath. He takes a look back at the slope with a sense of accomplishment.
“You have to be a billy goat to be at this fair,” Dutch jokes. He wore a plain white tee-shirt, loose jeans, and beat-up boots that have seen better days. He held a lit cigarette in one hand and a nearly empty Snapple bottle in the other. “You can get some food and walk it off right away!”
At 6 p.m. the sun begins to sink, but thousands of people are still pouring into the fair. The midway lights burn on, and American Idol runner up and country music star Lauren Alaina, prepares to take the Main Stage.
If you didn’t make it to the fair this year, the good news is that the fair will be up and running in 2024 for its 104th annual opening, and Durham locals will welcome all with open arms.
Dylan Braccia is a Staff Writer for Blue Muse Magazine.
Header image courtesy of Dylan Braccia.