Field Days: Quintessential summer fun
Editor’s note: One of the great things about the Addison County Fair and Field Days is there is so dang much to take in —the farm animals, the food and drink, the competitions, the thousands of friends and neighbors wandering around the crowded fairgrounds in the middle of a rural paradise. Here are a few snapshots from the 68th annual fair that we gathered last week.
NEW HAVEN —At the busy Addison County fairgrounds last Thursday morning, the eyes were drawn everywhere: the towering rides, the colorful banners and excited, shouting children. But in one corner of the festivities, the crowd focused on a more somber event.
More somber, at least, at first glance.
It was the Addison County Fair and Field Days’38th annual hand mowing contest, and Lucien Paquette, the nearly 100-year-old founder of Field Days and founder of the competition, was set to compete.
In hand mowing, contestants use their own scythes, sharpened to perfection for the event, to clear an area of overgrown grass. Onlookers shout and cheer for the participants, who are judged on the speed with which they clear the area, the width of the area and the height of the stubble that is left.
What is not judged is the aesthetics of hand mowing, which last Thursday morning captivated the audience especially when Paquette took his turn.
“When you’ve got a sharp blade and a good rhythm going, strength isn’t important. It’s all in the technique,”the commentator blared through speakers at the event. “(Paquette)’s technique is gorgeous, it’s beautiful.”
While onlookers marveled at the beauty of Paquette’s work, the significance of the event lies elsewhere for the Craftsbury, Vt., native.
“I enjoy doing it,”Paquette said after finishing up his swath. “As a youngster on a small dairy farm, we had to mow the roadsides because the town didn’t do it, and we had to do it by hand.”
For Paquette, the event is a nostalgic nod to his childhood and to rural traditions that have become replaced by technology and machinery.
“(Hand mowing) was a very common matter, and then it started diminishing,”he said. “And really, I think (that’s) what prompted me more than anything else. I was afraid that this matter of hand mowing was going to disappear, so I started this hand-mowing contest. And lo and behold, it worked!”
“People are bringing their kids,”said Kathy Duclos, one of the organizers of the event. “And there are young people coming and there are young men in their 30s who weren’t mowing before who are just terrific.”
The publicity hand mowing has enjoyed due to such competitions at Field Days and at fairs across the state has also revived the practice. According to Duclos, the event brings awareness to a practice that many don’t know about anymore and highlights its usefulness in the yard or the neighborhood.
The inaugural contest in 1978 saw 35 contestants, a number which came as a welcome surprise to Paquette. Since then, the event has grown steadily, hosting the largest number of contestants in its history this year in six age categories that range from the 16-and-younger youth category to the 80-plus division, which featured Paquette himself.
For many contestants, the nostalgia of a childhood practice adds to its fun. Mike Canty, 67, used to help his father clear the sidewalk with a hand-mowing scythe. Even though that hasn’t been a part of his life for a while, Canty has competed in the hand-mowing contest for the past 25 years.
“I hope to continue doing this as long as I can,”he said. “It’s a lot of fun, it’s a good workout and everybody seems to know each other, which is kind of neat. It makes for a good time.”
— Charmaine Lam
THELMA MINER, RIGHT, started selling fried dough across from the tractor pad at Field Days in 1979. Today, granddaughter Emily Miner, left, continues the tradition.
Independent photo/Ellie Reinhardt
Frying dough for hungry friends
There’s fried dough and then there’s Thelma Miner’s fried bread dough, an Addison County Fair and Field Days staple since 1979.
Miner walked into Field Days nearly four decades ago with her husband and a small cart, decorated red and white, with blue letters and a happy dough-man on the sign. Its replica, a food-truck owned and operated by Miner’s granddaughter, Emily Miner, still stands among the rides and lemonade stands, serving up fried delights.
Bustling with bread dough addicts last week, it’s no surprise that it only took one morning for the spot to become a favorite of fairgoers.
“I made one batch of bread dough that first time. I sat there all morning and only sold a tiny bit,”Thelma Miner recalled. “But then my husband took a piece up to the guys at the radio station. They tried it, began to broadcast it and by 1:30 p.m., I was mobbed.” “It took off like wildfire!”
Miner called for backup.
She was encouraged to start selling her bread dough by friends and was welcomed into Field Days by fair founder Lucien Paquette, a close family friend.
She set up her cart across from the tractor pad and sat there for 26 years, making and pushing dough in preparation for the hungry masses.
“I was so darn busy down there that I never wandered far,”she recalled.
But from her spot on the corner, Miner was still able to watch Field Days pass year after year.
“It’s changed,”she said. “And I don’t know if it’s for the better or not. It was more oriented around agriculture back when I first came. There were a lot more members and farmers.”
Now Miner comes back each year to watch the hand-mowing contest, where she cheers for Paquette. This year, she watched as the 100-year-old legend (well, three-days short of his 100th birthday) stood in the hot sun at the hand mowing competition.
“Lucien’s down there hand mowing,”Miner said. “He was out in the hot sun demonstrating and talking to people. He’s a fantastic person.”
And Lucien, who Miner has known for 60 years, also knows about her bread dough.
“He hasn’t come up to get his bread dough yet, but he will eventually,”chimed in Emily Miner as she sat beaming proudly at her grandma’s side.
— Ellie Reinhardt
STEVEN PETERS OF Joan and Steve’s Lemonade has traveled the country fair circuit for three decades slaking thirsty fairgoers with his ice cold drinks.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Cold drinks on a hot summer day
It’s easy to spot Joan and Steve’s Lemonade while perusing the Addison County Fair and Field Days: Their yellow pop-up is decorated with flowers and baskets of lemons, and the attendants are most likely making some noise while shaking up one of their freshly-squeezed concoctions.
Spotting the stand was certainly a relief last week —especially those traversing the grounds under the week’s beating hot sun.
“We get a lot of compliments on our lemonade,”owner Steven Peters told a parched inquisitor.
Peters has two best-sellers: a classic lemonade shaken with ice and a few fresh wedges, and the lesser-known maple lemonade, added to the menu just two years ago, in which they use maple syrup instead of sugar. While the classic lemonade’s sugar level is subtler, the maple lemonade is great for those with a sweet tooth.
Peters and his wife, Joan, have owned the stand since 1995. Before that, Peters worked as an attendant for nine years when his aunt and uncle owned it. When Peters took over, he remodeled the stand and added small perks, like reusable 32-ounce cups.
In the future, the he hope to pass the stand down to their daughter, Autumn Degree, who serves lemonade now.
“She’s our right hand,”Joan said. “She doesn’t get paid, but she knows the lemonade is going to be hers one day.”
Though many customers may be tempted to replicate the recipe themselves, the Peters aren’t about to share the recipe.
“So many people say they’ve tried this at home and can’t get it to taste this way,”Joan said.
— Emma Cotton
The recipe for Joan and Steve’s Lemonade is a secret, but for those who crave a splash of something refreshing now that Field Days is over, here’s a recipe for maple strawberry lemonade that’s almost as good.
Maple Strawberry Lemonade
¾cups of maple syrup
6cups cold water
1. Purée the strawberries in a blender until smooth.
2. Warm the maple syrup until runny.
3. Combine the lemon juice and cold water and stir until combined. Add the maple sugar (a little at a time, if you want to test the sweetness) and strawberry purée, and mix.
4. Pour the mixture over ice, add lemon and strawberry slices if you’re feeling fancy, and enjoy!
Hypnotist has fun with people
“You cannot escape my trance.”Hypnotist Michael Blaine’s slogan hung ominously above him on a banner as he attempted (and succeeded in some cases) to hypnotize audience members in the show tent at Field Days last week.
Albeit unnerving, the mantra fits the performer, who recently retired from a 26-year run as a lieutenant watch commander in a New York prison (he stressed that he never hypnotized prisoners).
Standing on stage, Blaine plucked willing volunteers from the audience and placed them in eight white seats. Every hypnotist uses different methods to engage the trance, and Blaine used both auditory and visual tricks to guide volunteers into relaxation.
“Every technique is different,”he said told a reporter. “Mine is longer than it has to be, but it’s very, very effective. It’s slower, gentler and eases them into it.”
Once on stage, Blaine searches for signs that volunteers are distracted or faking hypnosis. When discovered, he kindly requests that they return to their seat in the audience. At a Thursday show, Blaine pulled four volunteers to the stage, but only one was successfully hypnotized.
“Two from the start I knew would not be worth anything,”he said. “The third I thought would do very well, but I ended up having to dismiss her so I ended up with just the one.”
Blaine said a one-person show is hard to pull off.
“The more people I have, the more personalities I have on stage, the (more) responses I get to different things,”he said.
But he said the one guy he kept on stage Thursday turned out to be a good choice.
“He was gold,”Blaine said.
The volunteer responded obediently to Blaine’s suggestions. Each time Blaine said “hypnosis,”the subject jumped up, thinking he was Rocky Balboa. When “Gonna Fly Now,”the “Rocky”theme song, came on, the young man danced around, pretending to be part of a fight.
“He was a very good subject,”Blaine said. “I hate to abuse him, for a better term but I have to utilize what I have.”
Blaine has had his eye on a career in hypnosis since he was a child, when he watched his uncle work as a hypnotherapist. Blaine is trained in hypnotherapy, but he prefers performing.
“I just don’t enjoy it,”he said of a clinical setting. “Helping people is positive, but this is fun.”
His career has taken him from Maine to Alaska to Hawaii. Everywhere he goes, Blaine said, he encounters people who don’t believe in what he does, but he will never stop trying to convince them. He claims that hypnosis activates the subconscious, and the subject’s mind becomes “more focused than a laser beam.”
“Give me a fair shake,”he said. “You’ll be amazed at how receptive you are.”
— Emma Cotton and Ellie Reinhardt
Producing signature flavor for Vermont
It’s always there, it’s always busy and it’s always sweet.
It’s the Addison County Fair and Field Days sugarhouse —a maple oasis where the hot, tired and hungry can escape the beating sun and fall into a sugary coma.
Protected by a blanket of wafting maple perfume, the sugarhouse is a kingdom dedicated to the art of producing real Vermont maple syrup. And the people working there are quick to make that clear.
“People will ask me what they can find that tastes like Aunt Jemima,”scoffed Mike Christian as he sat in the kitchen filling maple-leaf molds for the iconic sugar candies. “You don’t talk like that around us.”
Christian, an Orwell sugarmaker, was one of 11 in the sugarhouse last Wednesday afternoon, almost all boil their own maple sap and almost all members of the Addison County Maple Sugarmakers Association.
Three were up front serving maple milkshakes, sundaes and creemees. Two more were across the floor busy turning pure sugar into fluffy maple cotton candy on a stick.
The center station featured maple bread, sugar candies of all shapes and sizes, maple walnuts and pretzels, maple walnut bars and doughnuts, and sugar cookies fresh from Middlebury Bagel and Deli, topped with a homemade maple cream.
And of course, there were bottles and bottles of pure, Vermont maple syrup.
Christian sat in the back with a crew of dedicated maple masters, cooking and testing the creams and candies, all the while laughing and joking with sweet sincerity.
And it’s no surprise this is a jolly crowd —most have maple in their blood.
“Many of us were born into it,”explained Christian. “My grandfather was a sugarmaker and I was out sugaring in backyards since I was 11.”
Doug Dwy, another Orwell sugarmaker, was a little older when he got involved in the craft —when his sons asked to try making sugar.
“We started with a big pan of maple syrup,”he said. “It all turned out black.”
But Dwy wasn’t discouraged and now stands in the sugarhouse, a proud sugarmaker among the rest.
As Christian and Dwy chatted, all the while methodically preparing their maple delicacies, they took a serious moment to make an important declaration.
“Buy real maple, buy good Vermont maple,”Christian implored as the maple sugarmakers nodded along in agreement.
— Ellie Reinhardt
FOR ST. ALBANS native John Meigs, selling cotton candy and candy apples at Field Days is a family affair, as his concession business includes his wife, his in-laws and nine grandchildren.
Independent photo/Ellie Reinhard
tMany return to the fair year after year
There’s no lack of cotton candy or caramel apples at Field Days —just turn a corner and there’s another spot ready to delight any sweet tooth. However, for John Meigs and his concession stand, the competition isn’t a threat.
“You have tried the rest, now try the best!”reads the large white letters on his pink, purple and green stand adorned with hanging bags of pink and blue cotton candy, jugs of soda, candy apples and the promise of sweet satisfaction.
Meigs, 59, is one of many at Field Days who spend the year traveling from fair to fair. A St. Albans native, Meigs now lives in Homosassa, Fla., where he sets up shop at fairs throughout the winter.
As the heat sets in on Florida, Meigs packs up and travels north, stopping in the Carolinas, then on to New Hampshire, New York and Vermont for a summer-long string of fairs and carnivals.
It’s a line of work Meigs was born into, and now shares with his family. He’s joined in his stand by his wife, in-laws and any of nine grandchildren.
They’ve been coming to the Addison County Fair and Field Days for years.
“My parents did it,”Meigs said. “My father asked to come to Field Days when they first moved here, and we’ve been here ever since. Now, my grandkids always love to come up here.”
A short ways away on the fairgrounds sits a smaller version of Meigs’stand selling the same sweet treats and manned by Meigs’father-in-law, a retired truck driver.
For the past 25 years, Howard Knight, 82, has been traveling with Meigs.
“It’s definitely a lot different than being a truck driver,”he chuckled.
While five days at Field Days is enough for most, Meigs has come to love the fair life.
“You get to go around and see the same people every year, and watch them grow up,”he said. “It’s fun to see that. We’re here just enjoying ourselves.”
— Ellie Reinhardt
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