Strolling the grounds of the 130th annual Ulster County Fair last week was a first-time experience for this reporter. Given my inexperience with the event, I brought a navigator with me: a friend who grew up in the region, well-acquainted with county fairs. We arrived first thing in the morning on a weekday, just before the fair opened, before the heat and humidity could really kick in. Neither of us was interested in getting on any rides or trying the games of chance, but we wandered through the midway in the interests of reportage.
We headed toward the barns, and here was a different world entirely. While the front half of the fair seemed to me a celebration of the gaudy and artificial, the barn area was as authentically down-to-earth as it gets. Redolent of the farm, the entire area was suffused with earthy smells and alive with the sounds of loudly mooing cows.
Every barn was full of beautiful animals: huge, sleek draft horses; Wyandotte roosters with gorgeous, black-and-white patterned plumage; black crested ducks whose fluffy topknots resembled ill-fitting wigs; cows that in close quarters seemed larger than I’d expected, with recently-born calves resting next to them; pigs that were — yes, really smelly — but appealing as all get-out; a red-eyed rabbit; aggressive geese with intelligent gazes; amiable sheep with dirtied wool destined to be knit one day into a beautiful sweater by someone; and inquisitive goats with sweet faces and knobby knees.
In a matter of minutes, we’d gone from fluorescent colors to earth tones. When I commented on the striking contrast between the carnival aspects of the fair and the farm elements, my friend suggested I think of it as a yin-and-yang thing, each part of the fair an apparently opposing force but interactive, linked together in tradition.
He explained to me that the county fairs began as a way to showcase the talents of the farmers, but the midway entertainment was added over the years as a way to bring more people in. He said he remembers there being half as many rides when he went to county fairs as a kid, adding that his mother said there was only a carousel and Ferris wheel when she went to county fairs in the 1930s.
We spoke to a number of the 4-H kids taking care of their animals, obviously in command of the situation. I found them all to be impressively poised; as a reporter, striking up a conversation with strangers is still the hardest part of the job for me, and their youthful composure in explaining what they do was noteworthy. I later learned that 4-H programs teach leadership and citizenship skills that emphasize being well-informed and actively engaged in their communities and the world.
Ariana Estela, 8, of Walden, told me she is a Cloverbud in the 4-H organization, a designation for kids ages 5-8 just getting started in the program. (The official 4-H emblem is a green four-leaf clover with a white “H” on each leaf, for “head, heart, hands and health.”) This is her first year with 4-H, but on the morning we spoke, she and her cousin Jordiana Rivera had already won two first-place ribbons and two second-place for their Holland Lop rabbits. Ariana’s mom, Anna Carter, told me her daughter was also a prize-winner in the art competition at the fair, having made it to the state competition level. “I like arts and crafts a lot,” Ariana noted with gravity.
Her aunt, Lori Van de Mark of New Windsor, was also helping out with animal care and supervision of the 4-H kids. The program is really a family endeavor in most cases; in the cow barn we met Shiann Winecoff, 20, who has actually “aged-out” of 4-H — that happens at 19 — but she grew up in the program and was there to support her sister Hannah, 15, who has been in 4-H for nine years.
The two have been working with the animals at Briar Creek Farm in New Paltz for years. Shiann said the farm owners have been very generous to them; the cows they take care of, Brandy and Leilani, are officially considered theirs now. (Both cows were standing guard at the fair over their recently born calves as we talked.)
In addition to this being the 130th year for the Ulster County Fair, it was its 50th anniversary at the Libertyville Road fairgrounds, where it relocated in 1967 to have room for expansion. (The fair was located in Ellenville for a while with a brief stay in Kingston prior to New Paltz.) The move to the spacious fairgrounds with a view of the Shawangunks allowed the construction of a 150-foot by 300-foot horse show ring where draft horse shows are now conducted each year.
Sean Giery is a member of the Hudson Valley Draft Horse Association. We met him in the horse barn caring for his Percherons, Bob and Jack; handsome 10- and 11-year-old, 17-hand draft horses. The two are brothers who are so close they put their heads together when grazing, Giery said, but will still tolerate being separated temporarily.
The “gentle giants,” as he refers to them, are a versatile horse, able to be ridden but also hard workers on Giery’s “Dun Dreamin’ Farm” in Campbell Hall, where they carry logs for firewood and spread manure as well as minimize the carbon footprint pulling a forecart to rake hay.
Every winter holiday season Giery becomes “that guy with the horses” who gives horse-drawn carriage rides through the village of Warwick. He also offers horse-drawn carriage rides year-round for weddings, parades or any other occasions that call for nostalgic transport.
Visiting the Ulster County Fair was a great deal of fun, made all the more so by chatting with the people who make it what it is. So if you missed it this year, well, you’ll just have to go next year. It’ll be back.