A Look Back: A Tunbridge Fair of a very different vintage

Bernard Blaine, of Windsor, Vt., stands in the midway at the Tunbridge World's Fair on Sept. 11, 2008, people-watching and smoking his favorite Prince Albert tobacco in one of the corn cob pipes he buys in bulk from a distributor in Hancock, Vt. Blaine said he has been coming to the fair for at least 14 years. He had always wanted to come for years before that, but was scared away by stories he heard about the rough crowd.

Bernard Blaine, of Windsor, Vt., stands in the midway at the Tunbridge World's Fair on Sept. 11, 2008, people-watching and smoking his favorite Prince Albert tobacco in one of the corn cob pipes he buys in bulk from a distributor in Hancock, Vt. Blaine said he has been coming to the fair for at least 14 years. He had always wanted to come for years before that, but was scared away by stories he heard about the rough crowd. "All those stories were wrong," Blaine said. "This fair is the best fair around. If I had a choice of any fair in the world to go to, this would be the one." (Valley News - Jason Johns) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news file photograph — Jason Johns

While volunteering on Antique Hill during a workbee at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds on May 7, 2016, Priscilla Farnham, of Tunbridge, Vt., catalogs sheet music for Irving Berlin's 1918 song

While volunteering on Antique Hill during a workbee at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds on May 7, 2016, Priscilla Farnham, of Tunbridge, Vt., catalogs sheet music for Irving Berlin's 1918 song "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in The Morning" part of a collection of songs the Tunbridge Cornet Band played from 1890 to the late 1930s. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news file photograph — Geoff Hansen

Fair-goers watch

Fair-goers watch "girlie show" performers at the Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Sept. 17, 1971. The shows were shut down in 1980, part of the effort to return the fair to its family-friendly roots. (Valley News photograph) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph

Watching over the beer hall at the Tunbridge World's Fair in Tunbridge, Vt. on Sept. 12, 2014. 
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Watching over the beer hall at the Tunbridge World's Fair in Tunbridge, Vt. on Sept. 12, 2014. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Valley News file photo — Jennifer Hauck

A barker gathers a curious Tunbridge Fair crowd with his gifted spiel in Tunbridge, Vt., on Sept. 13, 1968. Thousands are expected to sample the wide range of amusements at the annual Union Agricultural Society fair this weekend. (Valley News - Larry McDonald) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A barker gathers a curious Tunbridge Fair crowd with his gifted spiel in Tunbridge, Vt., on Sept. 13, 1968. Thousands are expected to sample the wide range of amusements at the annual Union Agricultural Society fair this weekend. (Valley News - Larry McDonald) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Larry McDonald

Jim Potter, of Pomfret, Vt., leads his Belgian draft horses Mack, left, and Barney to the pulling ring for the start of the 3,100 lb. class at the World's Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on September 18, 2009. Potter said he's travelled as far as Rhode Island for pulling competitions. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Potter, of Pomfret, Vt., leads his Belgian draft horses Mack, left, and Barney to the pulling ring for the start of the 3,100 lb. class at the World's Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on September 18, 2009. Potter said he's travelled as far as Rhode Island for pulling competitions. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Xhangdee Moreno, 18, of Chelsea, left, shares a ride on the Swing Carousel with Natalie Murphy, 16, of Sharon, right, at the Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2022. Murphy said her favorite part of the fair is Antique Hill, with its living history exhibits.

Xhangdee Moreno, 18, of Chelsea, left, shares a ride on the Swing Carousel with Natalie Murphy, 16, of Sharon, right, at the Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2022. Murphy said her favorite part of the fair is Antique Hill, with its living history exhibits. "The Champlain Valley Fair, it doesn't have what the Tunbridge Fair has," she said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By STEVE TAYLOR

For the Valley News

Published: 08-28-2023 10:02 AM

THE TUNBRIDGE FAIR AS IT ONCE WAS — Yes, it was good that a crusading young minister came to town and led the charge to clean up the wild, alcohol-fueled atmosphere of the Tunbridge Fair and get rid of its reputation as “the drunkards’ reunion.”

That was in the early 1960s, but before that, I got to experience the fair as it had been for generations.

My father told of going to the Tunbridge Fair in 1927 in the middle of Prohibition and seeing in the nearby cemetery a hearse with Quebec license plates containing a coffin from which bottles of whiskey were being dispensed. You could carry and consume alcohol anywhere on the fairgrounds when I went three or four times in the late 1950s; the midway was supposed to be off-limits for drinking, but I couldn’t see much compliance with that.

Indeed, most fairgoers seemed either drunk or working hard to become so. I have a vivid memory of a stout shirtless woman sitting in the grandstand nursing a baby while chugging a bottle of Black Label beer. Just off the midway were strip show tents, with clusters of rowdy men eyeing and jeering the strippers sent out to lure customers inside.

Despite all the boozing and wild behavior, the fair still had the feel and color of the rural, agricultural Vermont that would rapidly fade when the interstates arrived, the New York money started flowing in and the state’s political and social fabric would undergo complete upheaval.

The ox pulling featured teams of normal size and conformation, not the freakish hybrid, mammoth beasts that dominate the pulls in modern times. Standardbreds, the farmer’s horses, ran in the harness races, and local granges went all out with their exhibits of handiwork and baked foods.

The Tunbridge Fair is one of the finest agricultural fairs in New England today and tries hard to stick to its roots in farming culture. But I’m glad I got to actually experience the fair the way it became the stuff of legend.

I did catch a bit of the flavor of the old Tunbridge Fair along about 2008 when Gretchen and I were ambling over to the cattle barns and were spotted by legendary Vermont character named Fred Tuttle, seated in a lawn chair by the entryway.

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Fred peered up at me and asked, “Are you drunk?”

I responded I wasn’t and Fred shot back, “Don’t you know you’re supposed to come to the fair drunk with somebody else’s wife?”

Steve Taylor lives and farms in Meriden. This item is from his self-published memoir “Recollections of a Life in Newspapering, Farming & Public Service.” He contributes occasionally to the Valley News.