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What's new is old again at Field Days

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By KATHRYN FLAGG

NEW HAVEN — From the get-go, the Addison County Fair and Field Days has drawn crowds, said Lucien Paquette, the 92-year-old Middlebury resident who started Field Days in 1948. In the early days, families piled into their cars, traveled to whichever local farm was hosting the fair that year and congregated to learn about the latest revolutions in agricultural technology.

This was after the Second World War, Paquette recalled, when change was happening at an extraordinary pace. The latest advancements — ranging from artificial insemination for cattle to dynamite blasting in ponds — fascinated fair-goers.

“Many of these things were novel,” Paquette said. For the first time since the war, he said, new technologies were becoming rapidly available to consumers — and in Addison County, the Field Days celebration was exactly the place to learn about these advancements.

That tradition of demonstrations and agricultural education — so fundamental in the fair’s earliest years — continues today. But while the fair — which opened its 60th incarnation on Tuesday and will continue in high gear through the fireworks on Saturday evening — certainly includes its fair share of novelties, one of the largest and most popular exhibits today looks not to the future, but rather at the past.

The case in point is an old barn tucked away in one corner of the New Haven fairgrounds, where Field Days moved in 1968. The barn, originally built around 1825, was moved to the fairgrounds in 1993 and lovingly reconstructed. It now is the hub of the sprawling antique equipment demonstration, featuring an expansive collection of old farm and household items dating back as far as the early 1800s.

“Wherever you look, there’s something going on,” said Bonnie Roleau, who has organized the exhibit for years with her husband Bill Roleau, who serves on the Field Days board of directors.

Old tractors have been arranged in tidy rows outside of the exhibiting barn. Inside, old farm instruments, heavy flat irons, wooden sap buckets, antique apple-peelers and old photographs meet the eye in every nook and cranny.

But most intriguing of all are the demonstrations. Four men operate a horse-powered saw, which cuts through a long log as a massive workhorse powers the gears of the machine. Around the other side of the barn, another volunteer — Ralph Farnsworth, of New Haven — explains the mechanics of a small hand-powered machine from the late 1800s designed to shuck the kernels off an ear of corn. An old electric generator hums and bangs in the background.

It’s a popular exhibit, the Roleaus said.

“We get lots of questions, lots of questions,” Bonnie Roleau said. And many of the comments they hear are from people who remember, or recognize, a piece of equipment.

“A lot of people will come through and go, ‘Oh, my grandparents had that!’” Roleau said.

But the exhibit is as much a treat for the volunteers who man the collection as it is for the passersby. For the Roleaus, antique farm equipment is a family affair — Bill’s father, Amos, was a superintendent for Field Days several decades ago, and has also dedicated himself to preserving the old equipment. And, for much of the year, Bill and Bonnie run their Lincoln farm solely on the power of their 12 Belgium horses.

They’re joined in the endeavor by 14 or 15 volunteers, all of whom, Bonnie said, take pleasure in “tinkering” with the equipment. The highlight of last year’s fair was the discovery of an old gas-powered generator, which three or four men spent days working on. It was up and running by the end of the five-day fair, Bill remembered.

“You have to work on it, and you get your end product — and everyone works together,” Bonnie said.

Plus, they all take satisfaction in the sense that the exhibit keeps alive the agricultural traditions of the county. Almost all of the equipment is from Addison County — and fair-goers are always contributing to the collection, Bonnie said.

If the equipment isn’t used, or remembered, Bonnie said, “it just goes by the wayside.”

Bound and determined to keep that from happening — and evidently happy with the work — several men were back out on the threshers for a later demonstration. The demonstrations occur about every two hours during the fair. Farnsworth fed the wheat into the trembling machine, which Bonnie Roleau earlier volunteered as her favorite among the entire exhibit. It was one of the first demonstrations she saw, she said.

Using a small blade lashed to a handle, Farnsworth grabbed each bundle of wheat, snapped the cord binding the stalks, and fed the grain into the mouth of the thresher. Above him, in bed of a large truck, a younger volunteer tossed down bundle after bundle to Farnsworth.

The machine rattled and shook, powered by a belt running off a cheerful red McCormick Deering tractor. The breeze picked up, briefly, and the demonstrators — and onlookers — were coated in a fine dust from the grain. At the base of the old thresher, another volunteer watched the grain pour down into a metal bucket. When each bucket was brimming, he swiftly swapped in an empty pail.

At the end of the thresher, someone else collected the chaff and straw with a three-pronged pitchfork and fed the stalks into a nearby baler.

On the fence beside the demonstration, a mother eyed her child, around 5, who’d shimmied up on the fence post for a better view of the action. An elderly man leaned over the fence to asked one of the volunteers about the type of grain being processed.

“To sit and look it idle is nothing to seeing it used,” said Bonnie Roleau — and judging from the questions, exclamations and interest of the gathering crowd, onlookers would agree.

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