Feature: Water, Cows, and Fire: Essex County Fair Brings It All to NY

Photo Credit: Ashton Macfarlane

A Jersey cow stares quizzically at bystanders during the Essex County Fair in upstate New York

Small town fairs are always a pleasure, and the Essex County Fair in upstate New York is no exception. Their animals, their lights, and their crowds bring vibrancy to areas that normally see little in the way of spectacles. Sadly, these fairs are a dying breed, as rural counties tighten their belts and interests move from farming to industry.

But these small fairs do not give up and continue, for a few days each summer, to turn dormant fairgrounds into carnivals, bustling with farm animals, food stalls, rides, and demolition derbies. The small town in America may not be all it was, but stroke cows in a barn in Essex and one may forget that farm life is no longer supreme.

There is something unavoidably comforting about the smell of cows, and that is the first thing you notice upon walking through the gates of the fairground. Inside the barns, Jersey calves and Holstein heifers settle into beds of hay or stand, slowly and thoughtfully chewing. One of the great pleasures of the world is the chance to stroke their silky ears or gently scratch their stubby horns.

Even if cows are not to your liking, it is hard not to marvel at the dedication and enthusiasm of the people who have devoted their lives to the care of these large animals. Many of the young men and women who work with the cows, goats, and ducklings grew up on their farms with the animals, and the pride they take in bringing each to the fair is genuine and contagious.

A favorite Jersey, Little Chip, whom I saw just after her birth nearly a year and half ago, returned to the fair this year in all her stocky young adulthood, and it was like seeing an old friend, though I had only known her for a few days of her life.

To see the farmers, who wake up every three hours during the night to milk, settle into their tents at night, sleeping with their animals, is to see a devotion to one’s occupation that has little comparison in the business world.

There has been recent debate as to the true merits of milk, and whether the Dairy Lobby exaggerates its benefits for profit. But watching these small dairy farmers firsthand, it is hard not to wish that they might succeed. Of course, much discontent focuses on large commercial dairy producers, but it is sadly small farms that first are destroyed if the dairy market struggles.

This last year, the fair had llamas, buffalo, and a camel; a year ago it was two black bear cubs. But though I can never leave the barns with cows, rabbits, chicks and ducklings, the fair is far more than its animals.

The Essex County Demolition Derby has taken place annually at the fairgrounds since before I can remember. It is at once an homage to destruction, an embrace of unbridled emotion, and a sensory overload, as geysers of mud mix with screeching engines and the smell of burning machinery.

The sharp contrast between the serenity of the barns and the brutal violence of the Derby is a split that drives at the heart of a farm culture in which machinery and livestock must mingle. As tractors have supplanted oxen-driven plows as the tillers of the fields, animals have moved from the crop fields to the barn or the pasture, where they are valued for milk or meat, not physical labor. The image of agricultural might is now a tractor pumping smoke into the sky, not a mule straining its muscles under a yoke.

Yet animals continue to draw visitors to the fair, and their young caretakers continue to put food into their cages, sometimes tiptoeing to reach a particularly high rabbit. The rain may continue to pour, as it did many days at the end of this summer, leaving the center of the fairground a swamp, and pounding in that most cozy way on the roofs of the barns. The cars in the Derby may continue to burn in the rain, and young farmhands may continue to move to the cities for urban jobs.

But as long as the animals continue to settle into the hay for the night, and their caretakers to find their worn sleeping bags, the fair will continue, will adapt, and will persevere, as the snoring of cows and the rumble of tractors mingle in the damp summer air.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Should you find yourself out near Lake Champlain or the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York one early August, some of the best parts of the fair:

Daily Hot Dog Pig Races, in which the pigs follow a course that includes jumps and obstacles. It is surprisingly entertaining, and the piglets are adorable.

Maple Sugar House: All things maple, from maple candy to maple frozen yogurt to maple cotton candy to even maple lattés. The flavors are delicate and the quality exceptional.

– Fireworks display: Never fails to impress, for such a small county.

– Tractor Pulls, in which the size of the tractors is dwarfed only by the size of the egos of the men or women driving them.

– Archery Events: A favorite of many of the children.

– Wool spinning: A year ago a woman was spinning yarn directly from an Angora rabbit. And if one can find a sympathetic caretaker in the rabbit barn, Angora rabbits are a dream to pet.

– Milk drinking contest: With so many cows, there is not much else to do with it.

– Demolition Derby: To my surprise, it recently featured in the New York Times magazine. It is certainly worth checking out.

– All of the animals: Impossible to miss, impossible to leave once you are with them.

While it might not be worth a plane ticket to Northern New York, the fair is a beautiful reminder of farm life and farm values. Should you happen to be in the area, it might be worth it to stop by the ducklings.