Farming Past and Present Converge at Tunbridge Fair

9/22/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

TUNBRIDGE, Vt. — If there’s any question about the future of Vermont agriculture, Tunbridge is one place that people don’t have to worry about.

The Orange County town, not far from the New Hampshire border, is a hotbed of farming activity as evidenced by the thousands of young people who took part in this year’s 141st Tunbridge World’s Fair from Sept. 13-16.

In addition, countless school-age children got an up-close look at farming practices, past and present, on Agriculture Education Day, the fair’s first day.

“It’s amazing the number of entries and the type of displays that both kids and adults do,” said Henry Marckres, chief of consumer protection for the Vermont Department of Agriculture. “You don’t see this at any other fair. Orange County 4-H is big. In other counties it’s dwindled.”

Marckres, who specializes in maple and egg products, shared his thoughts while showing a young family how to candle eggs. A few feet away, baby chicks were hatching out of their shells and chirping as spellbound boys and girls looked on.

In this day and age, when so many people are removed from direct contact with farms, such experiences are priceless regardless of whether or not kids grow up to have a career in agriculture. At the very least, they’re gaining an understanding about where food comes from.

The name “World’s Fair” dates back to 1867 when Burnham Martin, a former Vermont lieutenant governor and state senator, described it that way during a speech to fair-goers. The moniker has stuck ever since, a bit ironic for a town of 1,300 people nestled away in the Green Mountain State.

The pristine setting is one of the fair’s main attractions. Instead of hot open fields, the Tunbridge fair was laid out in the flat bottom land of a hayfield next to the First Branch of the White River, where teenage contestants water their cows between shows. All around, lush green hillsides provide a backdrop for midway rides and rustic barns where fair exhibits are housed.

“It’s kind of a reunion of friends,” said John Pease, of Pease Family Farm in Tunbridge. “We don’t live far apart, but we’re all so busy that sometimes the only place we see each other is here.”

However, the fair wasn’t always known for its family-friendly atmosphere.

“Back in the ’50s and ’60s it was kind of a drunken brawl,” said 80-year-old Olive “Bunchie” Angell, of Tunbridge.

“They even had girlie shows,” said her 83-year-old husband, Byron.

The Angells belong to a group called the Ed Larkin Contra Dancers, billed as the oldest-formed contra dance group in America.

The group’s fiddler, Harold Luce, is in his 90s.

“We’re the oldest couple dancing,” Olive said. “This fair is special because we have a son who’s a dairy farmer. He and his sons show cattle. It makes it a family thing for us. It’s a big time for Tunbridge.”

By the way, her nickname, Bunchie?

“I was daddy’s little honey bunch,” she said, smiling.

Some of the fair’s most popular attractions are harness racing, sheep-dog trials, ox and cattle shows, and horse pulling.

Ray Morvan of Heritage Ox Farm brought a mammoth 3,080-pound Brown Swiss beast named Joker. Another, named Jack, weighs 2,555 pounds, some pretty heavy duty four-legged power.

A fair judge explained how, in addition to size, the animals are judged on the structure of their legs and overall conformation.

Kaleigh Hamel of Waitsfield, Vt., handled a pair of twin Holstein working steers named Simon and Oliver.

The area’s agricultural heritage and rural culture are preserved by many exhibits. One has dozens of old-time sleighs and carriages. Another features countless antique household items, such as old-fashioned irons, apple peeling devices and milk bottles.

Barbara Presch of Chelsea, Vt., showed how candles are made. Her 10-year-old granddaughter, Hannah, won a first-place ribbon for her finger-knitted scarf, one of the more than 1,200 junior arts and crafts entries on display. Traditional skills are passed down from one generation to another.

However, other vendors keep people abreast of the latest technological advancements that can help make life on the farm a bit easier.

The town of Tunbridge celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2011. This year’s fair helped mark the start of another quarter-millennium of country living where farming in its many forms is very much alive and well.

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