THROUGH THE WOODS: The 180th Chatham Fair

Frank Wambach and his horses Comet and Cupid c. 1925. Photo contributed

THE COLUMBIA COUNTY FAIR in Chatham is back! We can’t absolutely prove it, but it is probable that our family attended since the beginning. My maternal grandfather, Frank Wambach, was off to the fair with his horses Comet and Cupid circa 1925 hoping to win a prize. He lost first prize to the Chatham Payne family team.

The fair was centered on agriculture, which was the backbone of the community. My parents sorted out our prize vegetables, jars of pickles, needlework, and old tools to use in the Austerlitz Grange display. We kids had artwork submitted to be viewed with other schools around the county. In the 1950s I had 4-H entries of cookies, muffins and other desserts. Later I won prizes with my New Zealand White rabbits. These were great meat producing rabbits and relished by my modest number of customers.

In my teen years we showed Shetland ponies in driving and breeding classes. In fact, our favorite part of the fair was anything to do with horses. I trained and showed for others because my parents never allowed us to take larger livestock. The reason given for this was they were afraid of diseases from other animals. I suspect it was more likely all the work and expense involved because I never heard of anyone having this happen.

The grandstand was where we watched the shows, school queen crowned, numerous horse races, and politicians circulating through the crowds. I never dreamed that someday I was to have that beautiful pinto horse that led out the racehorses onto the track. She was a handful for a twelve-year-old to ride and I loved her. My mother’s best friend “Aunt Jane” came up from Connecticut every year and usually brought her parents. We loved her mother because she gave each of us children a 50-cent piece to spend on anything we liked. That was a vast fortune back then. Of course, we happily squandered it on the midway games, Ferris wheel, cotton candy, and always one of those “tweety birds” on a string that dangled from a stick and chirped when flown threw the air. I was shocked to learn from my father’s elderly sister that she loved those birds too. When she was a young child, she sat on the end of the horse drawn wagon playing with one of those birds. They were on their 6-mile drive home after a long day at the Fair and she dropped her bird. No matter how much she pleaded her father would not stop to pick it up from the road. I suspect she didn’t remember the warnings about dropping things out of the wagon, but she still remembered the loss and was angry.

Aunt Jane always brought something else with her to the fair, rain. It was a standing joke and it prompted putting umbrellas and raincoats in the cars as soon as she arrived. I was always sad for the poor firemen when it was their parade day, and I can see them sloshing through the puddles in their boots and slickers. At least it was cooler than those blazing, parching sunny days, and it always dried up fast.

If I close my eyes there are so many familiar fair smells like the sausages and peppers, dust, strong Lysol in the restrooms, beer tents, straw and wood shavings, barns, and of course the perfumes of warm fudge and cotton candy. The whole hustle and bustle and jostling crowd was a huge event in a small community.

There was happy music, flashing lights at night, the carny people calling out, meeting friends not seen since school let out. It was and still is a terrific way to celebrate the end of summer. The bad part of it was that the fair and the singing crickets meant that we had to go back to school again. That feeling returns to the pit of the stomach (even after all these years), of anticipation of many good things along with the dread of the unknown for the coming year. Despite this, I am happily remembering, particularly this year, and the ad is true, you really can “be a kid again” at the fair.

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