The spell of the county fair

A girl catches some air on a jumping harness, with Skytop Tower in the distance. (Photo by Will Dendis)

The 2020 Ulster County Fair has been canceled. Long live the Ulster County Fair.

The county fairgrounds are so positioned in relation to the Village of New Paltz — down and to the left, keeping tempo with the north-flowing Wallkill — that, when things are happening there, it always seems as though war is encroaching and sociopolitical chaos is imminent. The sky flashes in a sulphurous arrhythmia. The screams, blasts, grinding machines and summer thunder sweep around the reverberating bowl of the Shawangunk Ridge, a menacing uprising.


It won’t be long now until our little village, wild in its own college town way but relatively stable through the years, will be overrun by some mad grassroots skirmish making its way up from, I don’t know, Pine Bush.

And isn’t the Ulster County Fair a sporting kind of war? If New Paltz is the progressive capital of central and southern Ulster County (leaving the broader geographic distinction to Woodstock), the fair is the ironically situated “other.” It’s a ritualized affirmation of gas sports, deep fry, and the Blue-State reach of jingoistic country music. It’s everyone’s fair, “a real country fair,” said a local TV ad in an apparent dig at that high-fiber, old-money affair across the river (also canceled), where the meats are grass-fed and the dunking-booth clown issues barbs as pointed as Rabelais’ (to whom he actually may be related).

I am certain that minds much finer than mine – many of them 100 years dead – have written on the attraction, the cultural function and the spiritual resonance of the county fair and, in particular, of midways: those cheap pop-up cities of the night (by daylight mere propped corridors of trampled rubbish, gas spill and wood rot) that would lose every last volt of magic were they ever to employ a single instance of technology more modern than very late Victorian. For therein lies much of their spell: fake cities designed to fool our great-grandparents, not us, patched and repatched (absolute frugality serving, as it often does, the higher purpose of haunted historical continuity), and, we pray, routinely and scrupulously inspected by local certifying bodies where such bodies still hold the authority and own the knowledge, but effectively unchanged since the days, in the late 1920s, when my father’s uncle Stanley left his house and family while my father played in his yard.

My father said, “Where are you going, Uncle Stanley?” and Stanley replied, “To the store.” As he often did, my father asked, “Can I go with you?” Stanley said, “Not this time, Jack.” After that, no one saw Stanley again for years and years, until someone thought he recognized him passing through town with the carnival.

That was in Steuben County in the 1930s. My carnival is the Ulster County Fair.

When I was a young guy whose  birthday always coincided with it, the fair only ever disappointed me because its facades and cities of the night did not extend in all directions for days, unfolding in never-ending variety and surprise, through danger, through temptation, though dream, never reaching daylight.

In retrospect, I guess that was a lot to ask.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.