All Images by Janet R. Stafford
As long as I’m blogging about fairs, I might as well bring us into the twenty-first century. For the past eleven years, I have been a participant, along with members of my church, at the Somerset 4-H Fair. Sadly, like many events, this has been cancelled this year due to the coronavirus.
It feels weird not to have the fair. This would have been my twelfth year working at our sausage, peppers, and onion sandwich booth. It takes amazing effort and coordination to pull it off, and it is a significant event for my church and for me. Not having the fair feels decidedly weird.
At the same time, it is nice not to undertake such an enormous effort this summer. Selling sausage, peppers, and onion sandwiches sounds so simple. But it isn't.
All the prep work and cooking is done in the church kitchen. Hot food is packed in full trays and half trays, which are put in big, white, insulated containers and sent by pickup truck to the fair. Then the containers are transferred into a cart and taken to the food tent. (No cars are allowed on the fairgrounds once the fair opens.)
The prep and cooking begins on Tuesday when green bell peppers and onions are cut.
Above: Cooking and cutting in the church kitchen.
Below: building the booth at the fairgrounds
The booth is stored in the garage of the house where I live, which is owned by the church and referred to as a "parsonage." We pack that thing up and take it over to the fair grounds, where we literally reconstruct the booth.
When the fair is over, we deconstruct it the next day, take it back my house, and stow it in the garage, where it sits to this day.
Our booth has a floor, which helps when it rains. Otherwise we would be standing in puddles. This is a real issue. We’ve had some giant downpours over the years and a major lake forms in the food tent in front of the ice cream-and-popcorn booth and our own booth. The 4-H workers come by and throw straw over the lake to sop up the soup, and this kind of helps for a while. Then it morphs into soggy straw.
And yet, people put up with the muddy straw just to get their hands on a sausage sandwich. They often tell us that they’ve been looking forward to our little masterpiece all year.
Serious-looking storm clouds The soggy aftermath
The fair starts on Thursday, runs through Saturday, and is open from 10 am to 10 pm. We work the booth in shifts to keep people from burning out, Predictably, we have lunch and dinner rushes and need to stay in communication with the church kitchen to make sure we have what we need to make those sales. (The money is split between the church and the youth group.)
I will miss the fun of working with our great team. But I’ll miss other things, too, like hearing the cows. They usually are shown in the tent across the road from us and when that happens we are serenaded with choruses of loud mooing. I’ll also miss checking out the other animals raised by 4-H kids - the llamas, goats, alpacas, and dogs, to name a few.
The fair’s food tent is the old-fashioned kind where various groups sell all manner of things to tempt your taste buds in order to raise funds for their church, synagogue, scouting, cultural, or other organization. That means you can find falafel, Chinese food, Greek salads, milk shakes, hamburgers, hot dogs, homemade lemonade, bubble tea, barbecue pork, and… oh my gosh I’m starting to drool.
Our fair does not have rides. However, it does have a stage, and on this stage every aspiring rock band and singing group in the county perform throughout the day. It adds to the general cacophony. I’ll have the Rock’n’Roll with a side of moo's and food tent roar please.
Even though we are far into the future as far as my character Maggie is concerned, I think she would recognize most of what goes on at the Somerset County 4-H Fair, excluding our modern conveniences and… well, the rock music. I know she certainly would appreciate the teamwork that goes into our church’s sausage, peppers, and onion booth. And I imagine she might like getting behind the booth and waiting - very politely of course – on customers, although I’m not sure she’d understand why we wear gloves and hair nets. Historically, she is located just before germ theory made its entry into the world. “Germs? What are those?” And then I’d have to say, “Never mind, Maggie. I’ll explain later.”
Like all of us, I don’t know what things will look like once we have emerged from this pandemic, but I do know this: the 4-H Fair has left me with many and well-loved memories. I also know that everyone (that includes you and me) will find ways to create new memories. Because that is what people do.
Stay safe and well, friends.
Janet R. Stafford
Warren County Farmer's Fair
Agricultural fairs today are family-friendly events with animals, exhibits of hobbies and interests, food, entertainment, and even carnival rides. But, like all things, the fair of today has roots in the past and changed over time. What follows is an edited reprint of a blog posted in August of 2018.
While researching the history of fairs in New Jersey, I came upon an interesting story about the evolution of the Warren County Farmers’ Fair. When I looked for more information on it, my search came up empty or presented only a brief, sanitized version of its history.
The one story I had found came from the Skylands Visitor article “Warren County Farmers’ Fair,” written by Frank Dale and full of intriguing details. This blog presents the short version. However, if you’d like to read Dale’s history, go to http://www.njskylands.com/fmwcfair
The First Warren County Farmers’ Fair
In 1859, a group named The Warren County Farmers’ Mechanics’ and Manufacturers’ Association organized a fair. One of the Association’s members, Abraham McMurtrie, donated 20 acres of his land on which to hold the event. The location was just south of Belvidere, NJ. (Belvidere is the model for Blaineton, my fictional town in the Saint Maggie series.)
The fairgrounds for the Warren County fair had buildings, a grandstand, and a half-mile horse racetrack.
A racetrack? Seems kind of an odd thing to have at an agricultural fair. At least, it did to me.
But the truth is horse races brought in a great deal of cash, and that cash would cover expenses far better than a pie-eating contest.
So, the fair opened up. Despite being beset by rainy, cold October weather, it managed to attract 6,000 visitors over four days. It was a success and it certainly made nearby hotels and taverns happy, for they were packed with out-of-town tourists.
However, a second fair, held 1860, did not do as well. And the following year the nation was split by the Civil War. Fair attendance tanked in 1861, and the event was postponed until after the end of the war.
Once it reopened, things looked good. When the 1870 depression hit, the one thing that kept the fair afloat were the horse races and betting. With the betting and races came drinking and unruly behavior. The drinking and unruly behavior led to complaints and reduced revenue. And, after the 1882 fair, the complaints and revenue were followed by its cancellation.
At this point, Frank Dale writes, “the land returned to the McMurtrie family who plowed under the racetrack and planted corn.” It looked like the fair was dead and gone.
The Farmer’s Picnic
But a good idea does not die. In 1890 a “Farmers’ Picnic” was held in the park opposite the Belvidere courthouse. It was a hit and went on to be held on a yearly basis.
As opposed to a fair, which usually lasts for a few days to a full week, the Farmers’ Picnic was a one-day event. Although brief, it was popular, so popular that special trains were run to bring in the visitors. Politicians showed up to glad-hand voters, speechify, and presumably kiss babies. Even Woodrow Wilson, who was running for Governor of New Jersey, made an appearance.
The Farmers’ Picnic was popular. Everyone loved it. They loved it so much that in 1935 “when the National Bank of Blairstown was robbed by a band of desperadoes, nobody notices; most of Blairstown was at the Farmers' Picnic.” (Dale.)
That was the time when things got rowdy again. Getting blind drunk and engaging in naughty behavior once again reared their ugly heads. Partiers merrily took to tearing up the lawns of the churches and well-to-do homes surrounding the county park.
The sentence for such bad behavior was exactly the same as it was in the 1800s. In 1937, the fair was killed.
One More Time with Feeling (But without Alcohol and Rowdies)
Some years before the well-deserved death of the Farmers’ Picnic, an exhibit started at Butlers Park (in Washington Township) next to the Musconetcong River. It was sponsored by the Farm Bureau and the county Board of Agriculture. Once the Farmers’ Picnic bit the dust, the Butlers Park event started to grow. However, it held on to its agricultural roots, and added to this some wholesome 4-H exhibits and activities.
In 1949, the fair was relocated to a more expansive piece of land in Harmony Township in order to accommodate growing crowds. Two years later, in 1951, another piece of land was purchased and to this day is the home of the Warren County Farmer’s Fair.
What can we learn from this story? Well, one thing is that our rural nineteenth- and early- twentieth century forebears were not the uptight, holier-than-thou types we believe they were. They knew how to take a good thing and ruin it every bit as well as we do. Perhaps even better.
Frankly, I enjoyed this little history of the Warren County Farmer’s Fair precisely because of its ups and downs and its final emergence as a happy, family-friendly agricultural fair. Let’s face it, growing up is not easy, even for an agricultural fair.
This year, the Warren County Farmer’s Fair is postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, one event from the fair will continue. It is something which takes social distancing to new heights: the popular three-day Hot Air Balloon Festival. It is scheduled to float gently up into the air from July 31 through August 2.
Note: I love watching hot air balloons. I was walking my dog early one morning a couple of weeks ago and heard the familiar sound of a hot air balloon. After a few minutes, one lonely balloon floated serenely over the treetops and then disappeared when it changed course.
Even though our contemporary agricultural fairs are cancelled this year, there is always hope that they will be back next year. And if they are, I’m sure my church will be at the Somerset County 4-H Fair and hawking sausage, peppers, and onion sandwiches. If you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to stop by and try one. They’re the best in the world.
Stay safe and be well, friends!
Janet R. Stafford
Image from http://clipart-library.com/clipart/231856.htm
I haven’t been posting twice a week because my vocation as an assistant pastor was demanding extra time lately. Long story short, I was updating the church’s website this past week and adding two new pages, most of which required writing new copy. I have spent a lot of time with my laptop, and my eyes needed a rest. Staring into a computer screen overtime does a job on my poor old eyes. As a result, the Squeaking Blog needed was produced only once last week.
To save a little time (not to mention my eyes), the following is taken from a blog I wrote about county fairs back in 2018. The backstory to that blog is that up (until this August), our church had a booth every year at the Somerset County Fair, where we sold the best sausage, peppers, and onion sandwiches in the world. (I’m not kidding. They’re sooo good!) As I participated that year, I started wondering about the history behind New Jersey’s county fairs.
I know what you’re thinking. The words “New Jersey” and “agricultural fairs” do not belong together. True, we have an insanely dense population, which is why the coronavirus spread so readily in March and April until we got our act together. True, we have famous and insanely congested roads like the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike. And of course we have the Jersey Shore, not to mention Bruce Springsteen.
No one talks about New Jersey’s farms. But we still have them. For the most part, they are found in the western and southern parts of the state. Many of these have shifted to selling organic fruits, vegetables, and meat.
And we still have 4-H clubs. And we still have churches, synagogues, temples, and other organizations that show up in the food tents and create homemade, yummy stuff to eat for reasonable prices.
So, knowing all of this, I had to wonder where county fairs came from.
Most likely fairs or markets were created as soon as human beings realized that they could trade stuff with each other.
Back when I was working as an adjunct professor, I taught a world history class. It was the entire history of the world all crammed into one semester. (Years later, I’m still wondering what genius thought that one up.) The class was a real romp that at times left my students, and me, breathless.
One of the things that really made an impact with me was the human desire to trade with other humans. For some reason I was surprised to learn how frequently our ancient ancestors shared and traded goods, ideas, philosophy, religion, and technology.
On the American continent, Native American tribes obviously traded, too. However, I am embarrassed to admit that I am sadly deficient in this part of their history, something I hope to rectify and write about in next Friday’s blog.
As for the European settlers, their first fair in North America occurred in 1765 in Windsor, Nova Scotia. And it’s still being held today! The International Association of Fairs and Expositions notes:
“In upper Canada, as Ontario was known in early Confederation, a fair was held in 1792, sponsored by the Niagara Agricultural Society. As with Windsor, the Niagara Fair remains in operation today. In addition, many small fairs were held during the early 1700's in French Canada while under French rule.”
The first fair held in the newly formed United States was founded by a chap named Elkanah Watson, “a New England patriot and farmer.” He started a Cattle Show in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in September of 1811. It included animal displays and competitions and offered prize money to the best exhibits. Watson went on to organize the Berkshire Agricultural Society and to promote fair idea to other communities. Soon other locales were holding fairs of their own. (International Association of Fairs and Expositions.)
Eventually fairs spread from Massachusetts to other states and by the end of the 19th century were commonplace throughout the nation
“Today, about 2,000 fairs are held in North America each year. They provide industrial exhibits, demonstrations and competition aimed at the advancement of livestock, horticulture and agriculture with special emphasis placed on educational activities such as 4-H, FFA and similar youth development programs. While enjoying these high-minded pursuits, fair visitors are also able to see, hear, touch, smell and taste the richness and variety of what the world has to offer.” (International Association of Fairs and Expositions!)
In New Jersey, a royal charter was granted in 1745 by King George II. It permitted colonists to hold a fair to buy and sell livestock and other goods. The fair was held in Trenton Township in April and October and continued to do so until 1750, when the charter was surrendered.
In 1797, fairs actually were banned by New Jersey’s State Legislature. Fortunately, the State Agricultural Society successfully pursued a reversal of the ban.
In 1888, a group of businessmen organized the Inter-State Fair Association. They purchased over 100 acres to hold fairs featuring “various breeds of horses, cattle and other livestock, agricultural products and farming equipment, culinary arts and needlework.” While the fair no longer meets, the grounds have been preserved and now serve as a sculpture park. (Grounds for Sculpture)
Another New Jersey State Fair was held at Garden Park in Cherry Hill. In 1999, though, the rights to the name “New Jersey State Fair” were purchased by the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show. (New Jersey State History Committee)
If New Jersey’s “state fair” information seems odd to you, you’re right. I got the impression that there never was an “official” state fair. Of course, I could be wrong, and I’m okay with that because I researched all this on the spur of the moment and there may be information out there that I didn’t find.
If this “dude, where’s my state fair” problem sounds weird, that’s nothing compared to the crazy history of the Warren County Fair. Warren County. of course, is home to the fictional town of Blaineton, which is home to my character Maggie Blaine Smith. So, in an odd way, the story of state and county fairs takes us back to the Saint Maggie series.
The story of the Warren County Fair will be reprinted on Monday.
Until then stay safe, friends!
Janet R. Stafford
Grounds for Sculpture, “History of State Fairgrounds.”
International Association of Fairs & Expositions, “History of Fairs.”
New Jersey State Fair History Committee (2007) A Fair to Remember: A Documentary on the History of the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show. New Jersey State Fair/Sussex County Farm and Horse Show: August, New Jersey.
(I had to go to Wikipedia for this one. Sorry…)
Image from pixhere.com
As I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post, I created the character Shelby Garrison on a challenge from some friends of mine, who added that he ought to be a traveling musician.
And, so – hey, presto! – Shelby was born.
What I didn’t know was that in the process of giving my new character something to do, I also gave him a love interest. Early in my WIP, Shelby agrees to play music for a gathering at Greybeal House. This would not have been unusual. People in the 1800s often made their own entertainment, and I figured that other people also would show up with other instruments and create an ad hoc band.
And that is exactly what happened. Shelby is joined by a banjo player named Paul Warner, a drummer Richard Hancock, Jr., and a woman fiddler by the name of Millie Turner. I think Millie has emerged from my enjoyment of Mean Mary James’ music blue-grass style music. Here is the first meeting between Shelby and Millie.
A short while later, Millie Turner, a waitress at the Norton Arms Hotel restaurant, strolled over. She was carrying a fiddle case. “May I join you, gentlemen?”
“You know how to play that?” Paul asked skeptically.
Without a word, she opened the case and took out the fiddle. The she began to rosin up her bow. “You tell me,” she said.
Shelby commented, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lady fiddler before.”
“How sad,” was her reply. “But I have good news for you. You’re going to see one now,” With that, she let fly with a blistering version of “Arkansas Traveler.”
Everyone around them stopped talking. Mouths fell open when they saw who was making the music. Conversation did not resume until Millie had finished playing, and this was met by a round of loud applause.
“So…” Millie turned to Shelby and Paul. “Once again, may I join you, gentlemen?”
In case you don’t recognize the name of the song, here’s a video clip of Mean Mary playing “Arkansas Traveler.” I guarantee you’ll probably recognize the tune right off.
Shelby not only stands in awe of Millie’s musical ability, but also likes her as a person, and as a result I found myself writing fun, flirtatious moments between the couple.
In this next scene, Shelby goes to the Norton Arms Hotel’s restaurant in search of a late breakfast. He knows Millie works there as a waitress and requests that he be seated at one of her tables. They then engage in a bit of mild flirtation.
“May I help you?” a friendly voice said.
Shelby looked up.
Millie broke into a wide grin. “Mr. Garrison!”
“Good morning, Miss Turner. I thought I’d come and try out your morning tea menu.”
Her almost-black eyes crinkled teasingly at the edges. “Missed breakfast at Greybeal House, huh?”
He smiled broadly and confessed. “Yep.”
“Funny you got my table.”
“Mm, hm.” Her tone indicated she didn’t believe his words one bit. “So, what’ll you have? Our new breakfast and tea cook makes a delicious cream cheese and watercress sandwich. Or so I’ve heard.”
Shelby perused the menu. “No, thanks. I don’t care for watercress.”
Millie chuckled and made a face. “Me, either.”
In this next scene, Shelby has landed a job at the restaurant as a dish washer. Mary enters the kitchen and the two engage in more affectionate banter.
…a loud voice called, “Two orders bacon, eggs, and potatoes. Three flapjack orders with plenty of syrup.”
He knew that voice.
Shelby looked up to see Millie striding across the room toward him. She had a wide smile on her face that made him unaccountably happy. Perhaps she was smiling because of him.
“I don’t have much time,” she said hurriedly. “But I just wanted to wish you luck on the new job.”
“Thanks! So far, so good. I mean, I haven’t broken anything.” He chuckled. “Yet.”
She gave his shoulder a playful push. “The restaurant closes at 2 o’clock. That’s when the staff gets their dinner. Sit next to me.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he teased, and she gave him another little push.
Grinning, Shelby watched her go before he returned to the ever-growing pile of dishes.
And so they have dinner while sitting together. As they dine, Shelby works up the nerve to pop the question. No, not that question, but an important one, nonetheless.
…he glanced around the dining room to regain his composure. It was then that he saw Josiah Norton enter. Following him were Dr. Lightner, Lydia, and Philip. “Huh,” he said, half to himself.
“What?” Millie asked.
“Look who just came in.”
Millie turned followed his discreet finger point. Her eyes widened. “Mr. Norton? What’s he doing with Dr. Lightner?”
“The town’s doctor.” She frowned. "I don’t think I know the other two.”
“The woman is Mrs. Smith’s daughter, Lydia Frost. The fellow with her is her husband, Philip Frost. I met him last night.” His forehead creased with a slight frown. “Interesting quartet.”
“Somehow I don’t think they’re going to sing.”
Her dry wit touched his funny bone. Shelby grinned at Millie. “Me, either.” He sat back in his chair. “Well, I say, let ‘em have their chat. Let’s talk about something else.”
“Like how about spending your free day with me?”
Millie held back a smile. “Doing what?”
“Anything you want.” Shelby held his breath.
“How about a picnic?” she suggested.
Relieved, he broke into a big smile. “A picnic, it is.”
For me, I use incidental scenes like the above so my characters can play with each other. This does a couple of things: it aids in their development and it helps create side-stories.
But when I took the “Shelby challenge" from my friends, I seriously had no idea I’d be giving the guy a job and, from the looks of it, a girl friend. That said, I think Millie and Shelby make quite a cute couple, don't you?
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder